Arts & Entertainment

World Debut of Light-Hearted ‘On Air’ Hits the Stage at Creative Cauldron

A SCENE FROM “ON AIR” showing (from left to right) Nora Palka, Erin Granfield, Owen Thiebert and Garrett Matthews (Photo: Courtesy Keith Waters)

The Creative Cauldron’s production of “On Air” has audiences huddled around the radio to take in this play’s world premiere on stage which could find its way to New York (with a few tweaks here and there).

It’s the last in a series of “Bold New Works for Intimate Stages,” the collaboration of writers Matt Connor and Stephen Gregory Smith for The Falls Church theatre company, said Laura Connors Hull, the producing director, in an interview at her office just minutes before show time.

Over five years the team has composed and directed a musical every year for the theatre, “a herculean feat,” Hull exclaimed in her office.

“On Air” is delightful, funny and entertaining and “probably the lightest in the series,” she said.

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It’s based on the life of Frank Conrad (1874-1941), engineer, inventor (200 plus patents) and pioneer radio broadcaster, who is aided and guided here by his wife, Flora (Nora Palka).

With Westinghouse, Conrad (Jimmy Mavrikes) applies for a radio station, KDKA, to report for the first time the results of a presidential election “on the wires,” this one being the 1920 race won by Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge who beat James M. Cox and his running mate, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Although billed as a love story, the Conrads have their ups and downs, like most lovebirds, aided and abetted by two charming “friends” (Erin Granfield is Agnes Davis and Garrett Matthews is her husband with both performing dual roles).

The vocals are mostly duets and quartets sung in beautiful harmony on a Margie Jervis set which fills the stage with gadgets of many kinds, modeled after Conrad’s cluttered garage in Pittsburgh where he spends most of his time at his work table when he’s not busy squiring and being squired by Flora.

The live accompaniment by musicians hidden off stage is critical to the show’s success. Music director Refiye Tappan is the pianist, Jeff Thurston is the violinist, Dakota Kaylor, percussionist and Scott Van Domelen plays flute, alto sax and clarinet. While she sings, Palka strums the banjo.

An important “get” for the show is cast member, local radio and television star, Robert Aubry Davis who is the omnipresent DJ and human timeline chronicler of the Conrads’ lives, brought to the Cauldron by his longtime friendship with Connor, Smith and Hull.

The supporting cast almost steals the show. Boy wonder Owen Thiebert, who is Francis, the Conrads’ young son, is perfect in every way with uncanny timing as he swats flies and makes music with a steel utensil on a big pot.

Agnes hides her liquor intakes in exaggerated fashion with flashing eye lids that mysteriously droop half-mast while her husband flits and floats in different roles about the set like a giant loose parakeet, smiling all the while.

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Connor and Smith stumbled on Conrad’s story while researching “War of the Worlds” as inspiration for a show. (That Smith is from Pittsburg helped with “On Air,” Hull said.)

“No one has ever written this [about the Conrads], done a movie or a TV show, a beautiful story, such an incredible thing,” Davis added. “It’s so important and it’s actually very countermeasure to a lot of other things.”

In bold, red letters, “On Air” flash intermittently to remind viewers it’s “On Air” time, and no one will forget.

Creative Cauldron (410 S. Maple Ave., Falls Church) has shows at 8 p.m. Thursday – Saturday nights, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sundays. For tickets, visit creativecauldron.org.

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