Review: ‘On Air’ at Creative Cauldron

Dancing and singing over the wireless airways–how might it have happened? What might have been a dry history lesson is given delightfully appealing musical charm in Creative Cauldron’s world premiere production of On Air. The fifth and final installment of the Cauldron’s unique, home-grown repertory, “Bold New Works for Intimate Stages” series, On Air has music by Matt Conner and book and lyrics by Stephen Gregory Smith.

Jimmy Mavrikes as Frank Conrad and Nora Palka as Flora Conrad in 'On Air' at Creative Cauldron. Photo Credit: Keith Waters Kx Photography.
Jimmy Mavrikes as Frank Conrad and Nora Palka as Flora Conrad in ‘On Air’ at Creative Cauldron. Photo Credit: Keith Waters Kx Photography.

Fifteen original musical numbers by Conner and Smith provide the engaging, emotional underpinnings to On Air and its easygoing dramatic action.

On Air is set in Pittsburgh, PA from the 1920s through 1941. Over fifteen scenes and songs, it effortlessly and smoothly communicates the fictionalized story of Frank and Flora Conrad. The Conrads were at the forefront of discovering what is now known as mass broadcasting. How so? They are given credit for establishing the first radio station in America as they tinkered together in their garage.

The production begins with the fast-paced opening production number “Roaring” that sets the time period, and then “Fire Hall Waltz,” a duet that depicts how the main characters “meet cute.” The humor of “I Wouldn’t Wish” provides a delightful way to depict the lonely frustration of being alone in bed missing romance too often while “Time to Go” and “I Can Hear You” are hushed ballads of love. “Election Night” is the opportunity to provide propellant to a scene of the full company energetically moving and dancing.

The music is performed by music director Refiye Tappan on Piano, Scott Van Domelen, Sax/Clarinet, Jeff Thurston, Violin, and Dakota Kaylor, Percussion.

Creative Cauldron’s casting and direction (by Conner and Smith) are outstanding. On Air is full of terrific singers who are also engaging actors. The ensemble captivates as they invite the audience into the lives of those associated with radio’s early development. The voices that fill the intimate Creative Cauldron space in solos, duets and group numbers are beautifully on the money.

The cast includes Jimmy Mavrikes, in his Creative Cauldron debut, as radio pioneer, Frank Conrad. Mavrikes plays Conrad as a driven, curious, inquisitive, and ultimately decent man. He is a man with faults to overcome, but we root for him, rather than find him unlikable when he too often overlooks his family while tinkering late into the night. Nora Palka is a human magnet of warmth, love, and support appearing as Flora Conrad, wife and radio development partner of Frank Conrad. Playing Flora as a tolerant wife, Palka gives the audience the opportunity and approval to put aside any real annoyance with her driven husband Frank Conrad. If Palka as Flora can forgive and steadfastly love her husband with his frequent late nights away working on the radio, then the audience can root for him too.

L-R: Garrett Matthews as Dr. Harry P. Davis/Ensemble, Erin Granfield as Agnes Davis/Ensemble, Robert Aubry Davis as Radio Voice, Nora Palka as Flora Conrad, and Jimmy Mavrikes as Frank Conrad in 'On Air' at Creative Cauldron. Photo Credit: Keith Waters Kx Photography.
L-R: Garrett Matthews as Dr. Harry P. Davis/Ensemble, Erin Granfield as Agnes Davis/Ensemble, Robert Aubry Davis as Radio Voice, Nora Palka as Flora Conrad, and Jimmy Mavrikes as Frank Conrad in ‘On Air’ at Creative Cauldron. Photo Credit: Keith Waters Kx Photography.

Garrett Matthews plays Dr. Harry P. Davis, who represents the business side of radio’s development into a commercial enterprise as founder of the first radio station in Pittsburgh, KDKA. Matthews also gets to shine in ensemble work, including one stint as what is best described as a Charles Nelson Riley-like store owner who wants to advertise over the early radio airwaves. An amusingly expressive Erin Granfield portrays Agnes, the too-often-lonely-for-affection wife of Dr. Davis. A spunky, animated Owen Thiebert appears as both Francis Conrad, the Conrads’ son and as the Young Frank Conrad. Robert Aubry Davis joins the cast of On Air as the mellifluous narrator called the “Radio Voice.” Ensconced in a radio booth, Davis is the connecting glue between the show’s fifteen scenes, providing snippets of history and commentary.

Margie Jervis’ set design for the Cauldron’s production of On Air is a joy. It is a dandy of details that captures the tale and brings the audience into the journey. The performance space is squared off with the detritus of a peg board full of a tinker’s “things,” a small sound booth in which narrator Davis holds forth, and bookshelves that hold well-used props. And, of course, an “On Air” sign that lights during appropriate scenes along with some telephone instruments. Lighting by Lynn Joslin adds a lovely incandescent sheen. Costumes for the characters from Alison Johnson appropriately fit the era and the personalities.

With refrains of, “Can you hear my voice?” and “A little further now,” On Air follows a lovely, lively untold love story. It is also the unlikely tale of how Morse code dots and dashes heard over the air became the major force that radio was to become in America for so long.

Let me add this coda. The “Bold New Works for Intimate Stages” series is a memorable, adventurous undertaking for a small-budget professional theater company such as Creative Cauldron. It spotlighted the local DC-area musical theater creative talents of Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith. The lineup of subject matter crossed centuries and dramatic territory. Kudos to all involved, including Producing Artistic Director Laura Connors Hull who had the original vision, and all those who helped sponsor this risky venture.

Running Time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission.

On Air plays through May 26, 2019, at Creative Cauldron – 410 South Maple Avenue, Falls Church, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 436-9948, or purchase them online.

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Metro Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.

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