by Michael Bowen
It's getting to the point where I would pay to hear Tom Stratton, Tony Ludiker and the three Clemonses -- Diana, Dave and Sandy -- sing whatever they want: Alan Greenspan's diary, Allstate's actuarial tables, football scores from the BBC. Or anything at all. In the current musical at Lake City Playhouse, Radio Gals (running through Nov. 16), they sing, they dance, they fiddle around on a dozen instruments (fiddle, ukulele, bass, piano, drums, tuba, trombone, triangle, spoons, gourd and kazoo). They're all a joy to watch.
No wonder they communicate so well onstage: Diana Clemons and Dave Clemons are siblings. Sandy Clemons recently married Dave. Diana's married to Ludiker.
Last season, the fivesome -- with capable support from Rebecca Priano -- showed remarkable versatility and a hankering for hi-jinks in two musicals set in North Carolina during the Depression: Smoke on the Mountain and A Sanders Family Christmas.
This time, the setting is Cedar Ridge, Arkansas, during the 1920s. Once again, the small excuse for a plot serves simply to set up one folksy tune after another. After Hazel C. Hunt (Judi Carlson) gets her hands on a transceiver, she invites whoever wants to yodel or chat while on the air to the comfy studio of station WGAL (actually, Hazel's living room). As Lake City's press release conveys, "Hazel's habit of wave jumping to find a clear channel brings a government inspector to shut her down. She discovers the stage-struck [trombone]-playing tenor beneath the bureaucratic facade and he's quickly ensnared in musical and romantic shenanigans."
Stratton, Ludiker and Clemons Cubed make the proceedings entertaining, fast-paced and hilarious. Of the three men playing grandmas in drag -- Robby French as Luanne, Ludiker as Azilee Swindle and Dave Clemons as Mabel Swindle -- Clemons is the standout. Mincing about with big hair, big glasses and big eyes, Clemons resembles Dustin Hoffman's Tootsie. He/she can be smooth as a mint julep, but he/she has a vengeful side, too. Clemons knits abstractedly, bellows into a tuba boisterously, uses balls of yarn vindictively.
Another of the boys in drag, however, has talent that goes underused. Ludiker has been the Washington state fiddle champion 13 times and national champion five times, yet without any lines (outside of song lyrics) in the play, he and French and Dave Clemons are reduced to shuffling from instrument to instrument and occasionally traipsing up to the microphone. (French concentrates on the drums and backup vocals, along with pulling at his string of pearls.) The three actors fall into the rut of the doddering grandmother, with pursed lips and fingertips touching prissily in front of their fake matronly bosoms. Their choices here are a bit too much On the Nose.
Diana Clemons (Dave's sister, Tony Ludiker's wife, now Sandy Clemons' sister-in-law) spent 25 years in theater playing in pit orchestras but only emerged onstage in the two Sanders Family musicals. Maybe she went to Juilliard, but she sure can tap dance -- well enough on opening night, in her role of Rennabelle, to bring down the house.
Sandy Clemons plays the piano, sings -- and directs the entire show, too. Playing the role of America, the most dim-witted of the 'Nuts, she adds her comic flair for making blunt and self-evident comments at inopportune moments.
As if that's not enough, the Sanders Family folks are joined this time by a couple of stalwart additions: Judi Carlson (as Hazel, hare-brained head of the Hazelnuts) and Sharon Burklund (as Gladys Fritts, the local poet, palmist, psychic and fruitcake).
The Hazelnuts need a wacky, defiant leader to direct their channel-hopping radio variety show, and this production has found one in Carlson, who has already acted in two Lake City shows and serves as lead singer for a popular big band in these parts, Tuxedo Junction. (This diminutive dynamo once even played Slue-Foot Sue at the Golden Horseshoe Saloon in Frontierland; this was at an amusement park in Anaheim, Calif., you may have heard of.) Carlson is not only humorously defiant -- she blows a mean kazoo, giving voice to her inner delinquent.
Sharon Burkland, who plays Gladys Fritts, has also performed in Disneyland theaters. But Hazel and Gladys are different types. In a lacy white dress with tight spit-curls plastered 'round her forehead, Burkland's Gladys resembles a flapper, somewhat past her prime, who hopes to keep the good times rollin' by indulging in the occult. To her fellow Hazelnuts, she's "Swami G," and she's deeper into the fortune-telling and palmistry than is altogether healthy. Above all, though, she's on the prowl for a man.
Pity, then, poor O. B. Abbott, the government inspector who is sent by Mr. Herbert Hoover himself to investigate reports of that rash of wave jumping among the Arkies. O. B. is played by Tom Stratton, who played the patriarch of the Sanders family last season. While Stratton plays comic exasperation a bit too broadly, he plays his trombone with gusto; that, along with his singing, recalls how good he was last year on this same stage.
With a gaggle of backwoods songs and the five talented holdovers from the two Sanders Family musicals of last season, plus the addition of comedic standouts Carlson and Burkland, Radio Gals promises to be another hit for Lake City Playhouse.