The Sherman tank in front of the theater primes you for the nostalgia onstage. On The Air at the National World War II Museum is an upbeat musical revue set in a New Orleans radio studio in 1945. The show features a dynamite local cast that clowns around and holds the audience spellbound with a series of period hit songs. This is simple entertainment, but it never feels skimpy.
Writer Sean Patterson, who co-directed with Victoria Reed, downplayed the tragic side of the war, but he didn't flinch entirely, for On the Air takes place on Mother's Day, and many mothers felt anxious about a son in harm's way.
As the show begins, the actors enter a ramshackle studio — the women: Melba Tompkins (Troi Bechet), her daughter Dorothy (Idella Johnson) and Betty Lou Fairchild (Courtney Boe); and the men: sound-effects mastermind Buddy Bordelon (Gary Rucker) and head honcho Frank Dane (Bob Edes Jr.).
These veteran troupers are in top form and all deserve a spot in the winner's circle, but I was particularly struck by Bechet, who sang with more than her usual confidence and strength. During her solo "God Bless the Child That' Got," you could hear a pin drop.
The plot centers on Dorothy and Melba. When Dorothy first enters, her mom Melba greets her with warmth and pride because she thinks Dorothy has just returned from a long singing tour. We later learn it was not a singing tour at all — although Dorothy shows she has enough pizzazz for the stage with a Carmen Miranda-style rendition of "Chattanooga Choo Choo."
Courtney Boe, a pert blond chanteuse, takes the spotlight as Little "Boe" Peep (who lost her jeep). In another number, she astonishes everyone by stripping off a prim suit to reveal fringed lingerie for "I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate." In fact, as she demonstrates, she can.
Near the end of the show, Dorothy re-enters the studio — wearing a WAC (Women's Army Corps) uniform. She confesses to her mother that she lied; she had never been on tour but instead was in basic training for the Army. For the first time, the war comes home in a real flesh-and-blood way. Like so many other mothers, Melba will have to say goodbye to her daughter and hope and pray she'll see her again.
This revelation isn't played like a big sentimental, get-out-your-handkerchief moment. But it's a reminder that war is hell. Despite that reality, On The Air serves lots of fun and fine music. It's an excellent cabaret. — Dalt Wonk
On The Air
6 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m. Sunday; through June 26.
National World War II Museum, Stage Door Canteen, 945 Magazine St., 528-1943; www.nationalworldwarIImuseum.org
Tickets $30 show only, $60 dinner and show Fri.-Sat.; $60 adults, $45 children, Sunday brunch and show