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‘Radio Gals’ Opens off-Broadway

October 1, 1996

NEW YORK (AP) _ Creators of small-scale musicals have discovered, in this urban setting, an audience taste for rural whimsy.

Added to ``Pump Boys and Dinettes,″ ``Oil City Symphony,″ ``Smoke on the Mountain″ and ``Cowgirls″ _ the latter still running _ comes ``Radio Gals,″ which opened Tuesday at the off-Broadway John Houseman Theater.

This musical, set in Cedar Ridge, Ark., in the late 1920s, is the most quaint of all. It’s either almost too fey or really over the top, depending on a viewer’s tolerance for moving through whimsy as thick as peanut vines.

All of the shows have professional musicians playing innocent, rustic amateur musicians who are actually good. None of the shows is, or aims to be, grounded in rural realism.

In ``Radio Gals,″ Carole Cook plays Hazel C. Hunt, overdressed, eccentric and dignified, whose station WGAL is in her living room. Her quartet, playing a vast variety of instruments, even a theremin, is the Hazelnuts _ two naive young women (Klea Blackhurst and Emily Mikesell) and two men as the elderly Swindle sisters (M. Rice and P.M. Craver).

Blackhurst gets to deliver the breathless line, ``It’s a wild and woolly world. Thank God I’m just a fiddler.″

Whenever somebody phones that the signal is fading, Hazel Hunt just moves through radio channels until she finds airspace that’s clear. The fact that Aimee Semple MacPherson did that from a radio station in her Foursquare Gospel temple in Los Angeles is said to be partial inspiration for this show.

The book, music and lyrics are by Mike Craver and Mark Hardwick. The songs are sweetly clever; one listens with a smile. Craver and Hardwick, who died in 1993, were co-creators and original cast members of ``Oil City Symphony.″

Trouble enters the bucolic setting as O.B. Abbott (Matthew Bennett), sent by the Commerce Department to put the ``radio gals″ out of business for broadcast code infringement. There’s a complication when soprano Gladys Fritz (Rosemary Loar), guest diva and the nuttiest Hazelnut _ ``she’d chase a moonbeam down a drainpipe″ _ falls for Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover’s investigator.

Abbott proves to be a dab hand with the accordion and have a radio tenor voice; he changes his allegiance just in time.

``Radio Gals,″ directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, is fun _ especially for fans of the Minnie Pearl school of ruraldom.

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