Review: Reviving the drama of radio broadcasts: Hedgerow’s ‘Radio Mystery Theatre’

By Ellen Wilson Dilks

Over the past few seasons, Hedgerow Theatre has been producing more and more “company devised” pieces. To great success.  Their currentRadio Mystery Theatre”—running weekends through March 19 is an entertaining pastiche of classics and new works written in the style of the 1940s radio broadcasts.

Before there was television, families gathered around the radio in the living room and listened to such popular broadcasts as Amos & Andy, The Campbell Playhouse and The Green Hornet.  Generations of family members would listen to the various comedy and musical programs—it was their main form of entertainment, the movies were expensive. Many of these shows (often sponsored by soap companies for some reason) were performed before a live audience in lavishly decorated studios, so Hedgerow is really reviving the tradition in true form.

Hedgerow Artistic Director Jared Reed and company members have put together a thoroughly enjoyable evening for all ages.  They have searched the archives and pulled the best of original 1940s radio programs and present them on a bare stage with a minimum of lights and sound to add to the atmosphere—but it’s really about the power of the human voice. Guest Artist Michael Fuchs does a bang-up job as the radio announcer, emulating those dulcet tones of the era to a tee.   He thanks everyone for listening to “WHTC.”  He then turns it over to Company Fellow Allison Bloechl to sing a commercial jingle about Hedgerow Theatre School.

Starting things off is an episode from George Burns & Gracie Allen’s show, with Fellow Mark Swift as Burns and Fellow Josh Portera as the guest, Howard Duff playing Sam Spade.  Long-time Hedgerovian Zoran Kovcic is a police sergeant who has to cope with Allison Bloechl’s masterfully ditzy Gracie Allen.

Next is Portera and Swift’s adaptation of a portion of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu legend.  These two gifted actors do a great job of pulling the audience into the tale—you could hear a pin drop.  I asked both about it after the performance, and they intend to continue working on and expanding the piece to create several episodes.  Should be interesting to see how it develops.

The first act finishes up with an episode of Flash Gordon—played in full 40s camp style. All hands are on deck (Bloechl, Fuchs, Kovcic, Portera and Swift, plus the venerable Penelope Reed) to act out this lively space adventure.  They all do a terrific job of reviving the spirit of this classic show that was so hugely popular it continued into the TV era.  Lots of fun was had by audience and performers.

After a brief intermission, announcer Fuchs is back and Ms. Bloechl provides another commercial jingle about Hedgerow.  The first piece of the second act is Swift’s Life in Sonderville, an homage to both radio science fiction and mystery.  Swift describes it as a “choose your own radio adventure,” and he plans to continue developing this piece as well.  Hedgerow’s episode features Swift, Bloechl and Portera. Ms. Bloechl is an almost robotic assistant who greets Portera when he arrives at a futuristic “colony” of some sort run by Swift’s maniacal character.  Very creepy.

From there, the entire ensemble returns to perform Lucille Fletcher’s classic 1943 radio play Sorry, Wrong Number, which tells the story of a woman who overhears a murder plot on the telephone.   Ms. Reed plays Mrs. Stephenson, an invalid alone in her New York apartment.  She is trying to contact her husband at his office when she overhears the chilling conversation.  What follows is a series of calls as the woman tries to get someone to help her.  The ensemble supports Reed’s wonderful performance as various operators, police officers, hospital administrators and, finally, villains.

The final offering of this most entertaining production is the still hilarious—and oft copied—Who’s On First by Abbott & Costello. Messieurs’ Portera and Swift don’t imitate the originals, they bring their own flavor to it.  Their comedic timing is terrific.

Technical support for this includes, Jared Reed as director (nicely paced), 40s looking costumes by the ensemble, lights and sound effects by Rusty Davenport and original music by AJ Mostrangeli. Leslie Boyden serves as Stage manager.

If you’re looking for a fun and stimulating bit of vocal theatricality, I recommend that you hurry to Hedgerow before WHTC goes off the air on March 19.  Hedgerow is located at 64 Rose Valley Road in historic Rose Valley—just outside of Media, PA.   Remaining performances are Friday, March 17 @ 7:30 pm, Saturday, March 1 8 at 8 pm and Sunday, March 19 at 2  pm.  For information or to purchase tickets either visit www.hedgerowtheatre.org or call 610-565-4211.