"Louie Louie," as recorded by the Kingsmen, is a great rock record, and nobody with any sense would disagree. Never mind that the chords are basically identical to those of "La Bamba," "Wild Thing," and even "Shake It Up, Baby." Who cares? G, C, and D — that's all the Kingsmen needed, because as another rock 'n' roller once said, "It's the singer, not the song." The performance is the thing.
It's the same thing that works for Dr. Radio, a new musical from Chris McGovern and Bill Castellino that has a lot in common with the old Kingsmen track. Though Dr. Radio is new, you've seen it before. You almost know it by heart.
The story is basically this: Dr. Radio is a radio shop on "Canon Street" in an unnamed neighborhood in Manhattan, run by Benjamin Weitz (Wayne LeGette). Weitz is old now, his faculties failing him, and he is closing down shop and moving in with his daughter. Before he leaves his store for the last time, he turns on an old radio and begins to remember his youth on Canon Street, in those long-gone days when the world seemed new and he was a man about to fall in love.
Suddenly, we're traveling back to the Canon Street of yesteryear, where most property is owned by profit-mad banker Penny McAdams (Irene Adjan), where everyone takes dance lessons from a merengue master with pneumatic hips named Rudolpho Garcia (Nick Duckhart), where everyone's fortune is told by daffy Gypsy Madame Agnieszka Pilchowa (Elizabeth Dimon), and where a new tenant is setting up shop.
Enter Kate Cuorecantare (Margot Moreland), who's about to open Canon Street's first television store. She carries with her the whiff of change and modernity — of an uncertain technological future of which conservative radio-peddler Weitz is frightened. Even though Kate and Benjamin mostly infuriate each other, they soon sense a certain mutual attraction developing. As they begin their protracted, half-willing mating ritual, Canon Street's other characters engage in all kinds of shenanigans involving, among other things, psychic phenomena, lost treasure, love affairs, a dead Irish widow, and a séance. And music, of course — lots and lots of showtuney music, interspersed with lots and lots of clichéd dialogue, drawn from pretty much any readily available source, so long as that source is utterly nostalgia-soaked.
That's Dr. Radio's writing, in a nutshell. It seems that McGovern and Castellino set out to combine elements of old musicals and classic movies in such a way as to provide the max level of comfort to those aging theatergoers who might have been displeased with Florida Stage's edgier recent work. Or maybe it's that the pair has spent so much time doing low-rent musical bioplays and jukebox musicals that they're now incapable of originality. There's not a second of Dr. Radio that doesn't call to mind a hundred other seconds in a thousand other entertainments, and there's not a single plot twist that you don't see coming 40 or so minutes in advance.
But... maybe that's intentional too. After all, Dr. Radio not only is an exercise in nostalgia but it's about one: Ben Weitz, sitting at his old radio, reminiscing about a simpler and less vexing time. Maybe "Canon Street" is a nod to an actual canon — that of old-fashioned, now-I-hate-you-now-I-love-you-type romances.
Whatever. It's hard to see how any of that could matter anytime in the near future anyway, because Dr. Radio is being given a production so lively, committed, and fun that bitching about its absence of originality is an act of sheer ingratitude. Adjan is typically committed as the scheming, tooth-grinding McAdams, deploying her famously sturdy pipes in a fun, brash character voice. Dimon plays her flaky Gypsy like she's waited her whole life to behave so kookily — watch as her eyes roll back in her head as she waves her hands in the air and sings "Dun-ty dun-ty diddle-dee-dee, da Dun-ty dun-ty diddle-dee-dee" while she channels an old Irish widow named McKeever. If you don't laugh, you don't have a pulse.
Moreland and LeGette are predictably solid in their lead roles. They even manage to eek some pathos out of a jazzy/poppy ditty called "There's Nothing Wrong With Things the Way They Are" — a really wonderful song that, if the world is just, will become a minor classic of the jazzy/poppy genre. Yet this is a play that's at its best when at its silliest, and the most valuable service that LeGette and Moreland render is in providing a solid bedrock of seriousness from which actor Duckhart takes off like a goddamned Saturn rocket.
That Duckhart is talented is something SoFla theater audiences have known for a while. He's always around, here and there, doing a decent job in dramatic roles. This role, I predict, is going to make him the go-to guy for smart, physical comedy for every theater in the three counties. His dancing is spicy, and even in the play's tuneless moments, his body seems to vibrate to some manic music only he can hear. And his Garcia is so breathlessly in love with Penny McAdams that he cannot so much as share a room with her without striking every romantic pose he can call to mind in the hopes of ravishing her with his sensual exoticism. Yes, his character is nothing new — just a mashup of racial stereotypes and old jokes. But that doesn't mean you can take your eyes off him. It's the singer, after all — not the song. Nick Duckhart takes his three chords and sings the shit out of 'em.