Home on the Range With the 'Radio Gals' : Theater review: This musical, making its West Coast premiere, is as sweetly unambitious and happy to please as the women who play in its Hazelnut quartet.

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

The year is 1927 and the airwaves are in the process of being regulated. But Hazel Hunt, a retired music teacher, is not about to give up the radio show she broadcasts through a 100-watt Western Electric transmitter in her parlor in Cedar Ridge, Ark., no matter what some pesky government inspector tells her. Hazel and her all-gal band, the Hazelnuts, are not as docile as they might appear. They are prepared to shoot, or at least tie up, the intruding Fed, so that their protest can be heard: "The ether is free! The ether is free!"

And that is just about the entire plot of "Radio Gals," a musical that is as sweetly unambitious and happy to please as the dearhearts who play in the Hazelnut quartet. From Mike Craver and Mark Hardwick, the folks who brought you "Oil City Symphony," "Radio Gals" is having its West Coast debut at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Gentle as ginger tea and almost as geriatric, "Radio Gals" is a valentine to the days when novelty songs about lady aviators and pets who have adventures were just excuses to get together and sing in four-part harmony.

And the Hazelnuts, it's nice to report, sing sweetly, play charmingly and can even do a little soft-shoe. My personal favorite is the fiddle-playing America (Emily Mikesell), who has an unreserved supply of the warm-as-butter grins and who can sing a country tune with a wail and a dip. She represents the mythical America for which the authors pine: completely uncontrived and yet not stupid.

Everyone should have a favorite Hazelnut, because they're an extremely non-competitive group, sincerely happy to watch each other perform. That goes even for the glamorous lead singer, the poetry-loving Gladys Fritts (Eileen Barnett), who falls for the Fed when she mistakenly believes he is quoting Tennyson.

The older ladies are sisters: the bass-playing Azilee Swindle (Mike Craver), looking very Mrs. Doubtfire, and pianist Mabel Swindle (Mark Nadler), who looks like Groucho playing Margaret Dumont. Wearing lovely lilac prints, these ladies tend to hug the background. They have a secret, which has nothing to do with a sex change and is about as shocking as finding mayonnaise in your tuna salad.

Then there's our Hazel Hunt, the backbone of the Midwest. With the figure of a battle-ax and the face of a dimpled angel, the redoubtable Helen Geller stares hard and a little bit cross-eyed at the microphone as she addresses Cedar Ridge, and, as it turns out, points west all the way to New York City. Hazel uses her show to sell Horehound's Elixir, the bright green tonic nursed in a backyard still that tends to blow up now and again. As the ladies tell us in a singing endorsement, Horehound's "brightens your attitude and gets rid of weeds," among its many attributes. The fact that it smells like gin doesn't seem to arouse the suspicion of the federal agent.

That agent, played winningly by Lenny Wolpe, just happens to have brought along his accordion. He hails from the Big City--Indianapolis. Music, it turns out, is his first love, but his father discouraged him, saying, "a real gentleman is someone who knows how to play the accordion but doesn't." The ladies, needless to say, don't agree.

As Rennabelle, Klea Blackhurst is a shy tomboy who's most comfortable behind her drum set. Director Alan Bailey has discouraged preciousness, which saves the show from sounding as if its dialogue was found crocheted on a pillow. Gary Wissmann designed Hazel's warm maple parlor, with mostly knickknacks on the bookshelves, as a little spot of civility.

The songs are not exactly parodies, but loving re-creations of a bygone Americana that took pleasure in imagining the life of Edna the Elephant Girl, or little felines lost in the snow who sing, "We're just quivering, shivering kittens/With no boots and no mittens."

Craver and Hardwick (who died in 1993) have a knack for creating small-town characters who you don't laugh at and you don't laugh with, but who make you laugh nevertheless. Their simplicity is as mythical as the country they inhabit, but the show is unpretentious, un-precious, and never hard to take. Especially when America's on the fiddle.

* "Radio Gals," the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S . El Molino Ave., Pasadena, Tuesday-Friday, 8 p.m., Saturday, 5 and 9 p.m., Sunday, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Feb . 19. $33.50. Telecharge: (800) 233-3123. Running time: 2 hours.

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Helen Geller: Hazel Hunt Klea Blackhurst: Rennabelle Emily Mikesell: America Mike Craver: Azilee Swindle Mark Nadler: Mabel Swindle Eileen Barnett: Gladys Fritts Lenny Wolpe: O.B. Abbott A Pasadena Playhouse production. By Mike Craver and Mark Hardwick. Directed by Alan Bailey. Sets by Gary Wissmann. Lights by Kevin Mahan. Sound by Frederick W. Boot. Costumes by Dawna Oak. Production stage manager Daniel Munson.

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