As we’ve see from their incredible collaborations over the years, the dynamic writing team Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith can musicalize any story. Here they help us discover radio trailblazers Frank and Flora Conrad, credited with numerous experiments and patents for the technology that led to the first commercial radio station, which they launched from their garage. Smith unearthed the remarkable story on a research mission, and the two bring it to life in On Air, now debuting at Creative Cauldron.
After the opening – the rousing song “Roaring” which set the context of the Roaring 20s – the piece settles back into exposition mode and took a bit to get going again. Flora, the superb Nora Palka, reflects on their lives as part of an interview. In sharing how they met and dreamed and kept reaching, we learn how the unassuming couple helped establish the radio connections to go “on air” and broadcast to homes for the first time.
Upon meeting Frank Conrad at a dance, Flora sets her sights on the quiet, nerdy engineer – a perfect early prototype of a Big Bang bud. She nudges and provokes him to loosen up and even take a spin on the dance floor. She takes charge, he’s hooked, off they go and the musical hits its stride. Frank, played by the also remarkable Jimmy Mavrikes, lives so much in his head inventing gadgets and tinkering with how things work. He struggles to use his brain along with his heart as the couple lurches towards becoming a family. Tender moments are revealed in flashback scenes of a young Frank, embodied in the delightfully full-voiced Owen Thiebert, a 6th grader headed for stardom, and already a veteran of 11 Creative Cauldron productions. Young Frank was experimenting with filaments and iridescent connections all while his father nudged him to “Go a Little Further” a theme that becomes a recurring refrain throughout the show.
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More incredible talent is front-loaded into the show with Erin Granfield and Garrett Matthews as Agnes and Harry P. Davis, the Westinghouse boss/supervisor/friend. Granfield has the chops of a cabaret singer and has a blast as the wife pining for her hubby to come to bed. The hours, days and nights that the fellows spend together on their science and engineering quests takes its toll on family life, and she and Flora kvetch about being left alone in “I Wouldn’t Wish It,” a playful scene with underlying melancholy. Agnes also helps relay the excitement of the suffragette movement, and shows off neat costumes designed by Alison Johnson, including free flowing slacks for “liberated women.”
It was also load of fun to see Robert Aubrey Davis back on the boards as the interviewer, narrator, radio voice announcer, and touchingly depicting grown up son Frances at the end.
Conner and Smith assure a flowing musical score, lighting designer Lynn Joslin does wonders with the space, and the set design details shine through with a sound booth functioning as the on air interview site, designer Margie Jervis.
On Air at Creative Cauldron closes May 26, 2019. Details and tickets
The thrills of scientific discovery and going further pulsate throughout the show. When the Conrads’ musical dance interlude is inadvertently broadcast over a radio signal, they become inundated with requests for more. They set up a weekly schedule to broadcast songs, add bits and banter about the weather, plug in more songs from the record store, and realized that mentioning a product on air resulted in consumers clamoring for it. It isn’t long before Westinghouse radios start selling off the shelves as stronger signals reached more markets — just in time to broadcast the 1920 presidential election, which was also the first time women got a chance to vote. As the musical’s climax builds, we can feel the excitement as new radio listeners hear the election results at the same time.
For Smith, researching the history provided context to the country’s technical evolution and showed how the first radio experience connected people. “The great thing about this story is that at its heart, it is a story about connection, human beings, whether that’s friendships, relationships. And radio was the biggest game-changer,” Stephen Gregory Smith to Arlington Magazine. “It was really the great unifier of the country in a time when we were just coming back from the First World War, and leading up to the next, and dealing with the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, everything else. It was the only thing that really brought the whole nation together. It brought family together. It was just one of the greatest inventions of our lifetime—not that they invented it. They just figured out a way to share it with everybody.”
If there was ever a time for unity, it’s now. On Air‘s heartfelt messages and buoyant music harken to earlier times of discovery, gathering together, listening to new ideas, and brand new concepts. And to each other.
On Air . Music and Lyrics/ Director/ Choreographer– Matt Conner. Book and Lyrics/ Director/ Choreographer Stephen Gregory Smith. Cast: Robert Aubry Davis (Radio Voice). Erin Granfield (Agnes Davis/Ensemble). Jimmy Mavrikes (Frank Conrad). Garrett Matthews (Dr. Harry P. Davis/Ensemble). Nora Palka (Flora Conrad). Scenic Design-Margie Jervis. Lighting– Lynn Joslin. .Costume Design–Alison Johnson. Production Stage Manager–Jessica Lucey. Dramaturg—Renee Klish. Musicians: Music Supervisor—Warren Freeman. Music Direction/ Piano—Refiye Tappan. Flute/Alto Sax/Clarinet—Scott Van Domelen. Violin—Jeff Thurston. Percussion—Dakota Kaylor. Produced by Creative Cauldron. Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.
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