As we all saw on the now defunct TV show Smash, it ain’t easy to create a new musical. The pitfalls are many and the clashes of egos can be a disaster.
Of course, there might not have been any of that drama as the musical Tuning In was being developed here in northeast Ohio. With music and lyrics by Larry Kass and book by Kass and Ron Newell, this is not the kind of show likely to trigger backstage backbiting, a smoothie poisoning or on-stage meltdowns. (Oh, Smash, we hardly knew ye!)
Indeed, Tuning In is so earnest and straightforward, it could have been staged in Mayberry with Andy, Barney, Aunt Bee and Floyd in lead roles. There’s not a gram of irony or a speck of meta-anything in this show, and one has to congratulate the creators for their bold and unshakeable commitment to corniness in all its dimensions.
The story revolves around a radio station (call letters are WLK, short for Welk?) broadcasting “musical memories” from a retirement home called Harmony Hill, in Ohio, where a bunch of aging vaudeville and musical stars are spending their declining years.
Trouble is, the heartless corporate owner of the retirement home wants to change the format of the station, or eliminate it all together. So the denizens of the home band together to put on a radio-thon fundraiser to save their beloved station as it is.
The show is packed with 25 songs (no reprises!), many of which showcase Kass’s ability to fashion lovely melodies reminiscent of a bygone era. The lyrics, however, are often highly predictable and bland, falling into the “moon-June” sort of sentiments and rhyme schemes that can eventually wear thin.
The production, staged by director and choreographer George Pinney, has plenty of movement. This is augmented by a rather forced plot device involving a gaggle of students who are visiting the home and provide some high kicking that the elderly residents (and actors) can’t manage.
With all those songs and three simultaneous love affairs progressing, there is certainly enough material here for a show. And Newell and Kass have their hearts in the right place, celebrating old-fashioned entertainers and their passion for the footlights.
In this cast, Dan Farrell leaves tooth marks on every inch of the scenery as the ex-vaudevillian Ruby Waxman, and Natalie Green shines in her songs as the young Shannon O’Rourke. Also, Tina D. Stump and Angela Gillespie-Winborn add some sass as the Johnson sisters.
But in order to be fully involving, it would help to have some real conflict among the characters, and not just the cardboard villain from the corporation (deftly named Mr. Coffin). One only has to read the memoirs of older vaudeville and Broadway stars to note that their lives were often rude, randy and not nearly so squeaky clean.
With some musical trimming and a bit more realistic wit, Tuning In, which closes it’s abbreviated four-show run today, might hit all the right notes. But for those who love the old tunes, these new versions are a comfy and non-threatening dip into the past.
Produced at the E.J. Thomas Hall by the University of Akron’s School of Music and Razzmatazz Productions