Category: Audio Drama Review

Review: Sealtest Variety Theater

Doing a live radio broadcast from a Houston hotel ballroom to a rowdy crowd on Saint Patrick’s Day in 1949 seemed like a good idea to someone. That infamous 1949 broadcast of the Sealtest Variety Theater became one of the biggest live radio fails in history and what the series is remembered for.

The Sealtest Variety Theater had a total of 42 broadcasts between its premier in September 1948 and it going off the air in July 1949. It was hosted by Dorothy Lamour who had co-starred in most of the Road movies with the legends Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. The show featured a dazzling array of stars including Jimmy Stewart, Edward G. Robinson, Gregory Peck, William Powell, Boris Karloff, and Sidney Greenstreet along with legends such as Hope, Abbott and Costello, Jim and Marianne Jordan as Fibber McGee and Molly, Norris Goff and Chester Lauck and Lum ‘n Abner, Harold Peary as the Great Gildersleeve, and Ed Gardner as Archie from Duffy’s Tavern.

Lamour’s charisma and star power was on full display. She remained likable throughout the series run and provided nice musical performances as well. She appeared to have been enjoying the series, laughing regularly and making the audience want to laugh along with her.

Additional musical entertainment was provided by Henry Russell and his orchestra and the Crew Chiefs. The music is all pleasant to listen to and on par with what you’d hear on most other radio programs.

Through the show’s first seven months on the air, the format included plenty of music, a dramatic sketch between Lamour and the guest of the week, and a comedy bit. Sometimes Lamour performed in the comedic sketches. Other times, a comedy team like Abbott and Costello would perform a typical routine or there’d be an occasional stand-up sketch.

The comedy was pretty solid for the Golden Age. The dramatic sketches were a mixed bag. Some were fairly good, but others seemed trite, silly, or simplistic. I mostly enjoyed them, but there were a few times I felt bad that a talented actor had to work with that material.

The infamous Saint Patrick’s day performance fell during this run. The wild crowd and technical difficulties led to sound quality issues and a profanity being spoken over the air by a male voice. To her credit, Lamour remained calm through it all. It was radio veteran Gardener who lost it and ignored her attempts to keep the show on script by trying to come up with something random that would make the crowd happy.

The event made headlines and Lamour didn’t run for it. In one sketch later on where she had to boast of what deeds made her character tough enough for something, she said, “Oh yeah, well I did a show at a hotel in Houston.”

In April, the show tweaked its format. The music stayed, but the dramatic sketches and individual comedy guest spots were done away with. Eddie Bracken joined the series and it became something of a sitcom like Lamour and Bracken playing fictionalized versions of themselves, with Bracken finding ways to get himself and Lamour into trouble every week.

Bracken was a fair comic talent. In many ways, his style called to mind Alan Young’s style as an exuberant born loser who often believed Hollywood actors were exactly like the people they played in the movies.

Young filled in for Bracken in an incident that illustrates the culture of the golden age of radio. Young happened to be at the studio to record his own program and did the guess spot on Sealtest on 15 minutes notice. You couldn’t even tell the script had been written for another actor.

Overall, this is a decent comedy/music program.It didn’t have mind-blowing comedy or music, but it’s a pleasant and fun listen with some great talent. It deserves remembered for more than technical difficulties and some rowdy drunks ruining its Saint Patrick’s Day program.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5

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Audio Drama Review: Unguarded Moment

Unguarded Moment is different than other Louie L’Amour audio dramas I’ve listened to because this one is not a Western but rather a noir story.

Arthur Fordyce is a man with a rising corporate career who goes to the track with a client. The client drops his wallet with a substantial amount of money. Arthur takes the cash instead of returning it. Unfortunately for him, he’s spotted by a small time crook who is determined to use his knowledge of Fordyce’s unguarded moment to make a big score.

This is your typical Noir tale of a regular person who gives into temptation and finds themselves in a downward spiral. In some ways, the plot calls to mind an episode of the radio series, The Whistler. While it was a polished modern production, the acting and mood captured the feel of another era.

The story is decently written and well-acted, but felt predictable throughout most of it. Until the last ten minutes, I could have called this story beat-for-beat, when the story took an unexpected turn and went somewhere else. While the twist was believable, it would have been nice if it had been foreshadowed a bit more.

Still, if you like old noir films or episodes of the Whistler, I think you’ll enjoy this audio noir story from one of America’s most beloved authors.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

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Audio Drama Review: The Prisoner, Series One

The classic British Sci-Fi series, the Prisoner,  comes to audio in a series of four episodes produced by Big Finish as Number 6 tries to escape the Village. Here’s a break down of the episodes:

“Departure and Arrival” is a re-imagining of the first episode of the TV series which finds Number 6 arriving in the village after offering his resignation. The story does a good job establishing the dystopian world of the Village. Most of the cast performed well, though  it took star Mark Elstob maybe the first twenty minutes to feel right as Number 6, and John Standing was a little over-the-top cheery as the first number 2.

At 78 minutes in run time, the story does go on a little longer than necessary and could have been tighter. I chuckled at the idea that leaders of British Intelligence wait at home like fathers whose children are out late after a dance because they’re meeting with a contact. It introduces Cobb and gives us a sense of how he knows Cobb (as opposed to the TV series which just had number 6 asserting that he knew him.) Otherwise, much of the new material before Number 6 is sent to the Village doesn’t add much.

Other change may have been disorienting but did work. The idea of online payments and AIs being part of the village  seems out of place for a series set in the 1960s and it seems to suggest someone had all of this technology since the 1960s but didn’t release it. However, the technology and feel of the village served to wow and capture the imagination of the original audience and if the audio version is to work, the technology has to impress twenty-first-century listeners.

In, “The Schizoid Man,” after seeming to escape, Number 6 ends up back at the Village (of course) and discovers Number 9 can do mentalist card tricks. Number 6 wakes up the next day to find himself with a mustache and using the wrong hand. Number 2 informs him that he is Number 12 and he’s been sent here to discomfit Number 6 about his identity. Number 6 returns to what he believes is his house to find a doppelganger of himself there.

There’s a lot going for this episode. The music and sound design is among the best Big Finish ever turned out. The story is intriguing and manages to capture a different angle on the horror that Number 6 feels. It’s helped that the audience really has to pay close attention to tell the two apart. The acting is great. Elstob is improved over a mostly solid performance in the first episode. Celia Emrie steals the show as Number 2. In this performance, she outdoes every TV Number 2 except Leo McKern. She is clever, cunning and manipulative, she plays cat and mouse with Number 6 and Number 9 and knows exactly how far to let them go before bringing them back. She wants them to feel like they might get away before bringing down the hammer.

My criticism centers around the ending. The original TV episode left some questions open, including  where did the “other” Number 6 come from and how did the woman in the TV episode gain this power of being able to see the card that Number 6 was holding away from her. Instead of leaving these as mysteries, this production decides to answer the questions. However, the answers are  stock sci-fi cliches and anti-climatic. It seems like an attempt to make the show less scientifically impossible. But one of these tired answers is more absurd and far-fetched than if it was left as a mystery.

Still Celia Emrie’s performance really does carry the day, and other than the attempted explanations, the story is still solid.

“Your Beautiful Village” finds Number 6 and Number 9  plunging into the midst of a horrific situation where all of their senses are challenged and for once, you begin to wonder if the Village is actually behind this.

This is a well-done episode and a necessary one. On television, the Prisoner was such a visual program, writing an episode that could only be done over audio was a must. The result is brilliant. You do have to focus hard on this, but the difficulty in the audio quality brings you to Number 6’s world where everything is spiraling out of control and his senses are coming and going rapidly, including his sense of time.

Sara Powell and Romon Tikaram are great as Number 9 and Number 2. Tikraram is particularly good at making subtle changes throughout the performance. However, Mark Elstob has to carry most of the weight of this performance, and he is masterful.

If I did have any complaint, it was that Number 6 has been made a slightly weaker character than the character on the TV show. The situation comes close to breaking him. Left to his own devices, he would have crumbled. If this method came that close, then there are  many interrogations methods that would have worked.

Still, despite a few conceptual problems, this is entertaining and does a good job of establishing the potential of the Prisoner in an audio format.

In the “Chimes of Big Ben,” Number 6 tries to help the Village’s newest arrival, a Lithuanian woman designated as Number Eight. He comes up with a bold plan by which they both can escape the Village.

Of the three adapted stories, this feels closest to the original episode with tweaks being added that improve the story, but otherwise it captures the same feel as the original.

While the entire cast performed well and Elstob was at his best, the highlight of the episode was Michael Cochrane’s Number 2 who begins the story exuding a lot of joviality which masks some far more sinister aspects.

Overall, this is a good set. I didn’t love every change made, but the changes didn’t objectively hurt the franchise. While the audio drama is different than the TV series, it’s not different in a bad way.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

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Audio Drama Review: Wizard of Oz

Big Finish’s adaptation of the Wizard of Oz harkens goes back to L. Frank Baum’s original novel. Dorothy (Ally Doman) is thrown into Oz along with her dog Toto where she kills the Wicked Witch of the East when her house lands on the witch.

The adaptation is faithful to the novel and its darker tone rather than the more universally known 1939 film version. People who have only seen the film will be surprised by Dorothy getting the Wicked Witch of the East’s Silver Slippers, and even more shocked by the grisly tale of how the tin woodsman was changed from a normal woodsman to his tin form.

That’s not to say that the story is oppressively dark or over-accentuates these elements. It only does enough to convey what was in the original. The story moves at a good pace from one fantastical scene and setting to another, and the characters develop throughout. The score is nice, doing a good job setting the tone without overwhelming the story.

While Big Finish is a British company, the accents were very good for the most part. Canadian Actor Stuart Milligan was good as the Wizard and the narrator throughout the rest of the story. They did decide to make the lead flying monkey a British “Jobsworth” character, but I actually enjoyed it.
Overall, this an enjoyable take on a classic story.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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Audio Drama Review: Red Panda Adventure, Season 4

The Fourth Season of the Red Panda Adventures moves forward from the finale of Season Three. The Red Panda (Gregg Taylor) and his sidekick/driver the Flying Squirrel/Kit Baxter (Clarissa Der Nederlanden Taylor) finally admit their feelings for each other.

The series dealt with it well. I liked that the characters moved immediately from hero/sidekick to engaged rather than giving us an extra season or two of romantic tension. Given how much they ‘ve been through and how much they know each other already, it makes sense to get on with it. The series tone remains light and fun but acknowledges the challenges they face in this transition of their relationship.

The stories remain fun, with a lot of great action and adventure. The influence of pulp magazines, old time radio shows, and comics is clear. The influence of Batman: The Animated series can be seen in the episode, “Trial by Terror” where the Red Panda is held and tried by the criminals he ‘s put in prison. However, despite the obvious inspirations, Taylor manages to put his own unique spin on the story and on each story in the season.

Some of my favorite episodes from Season 4 included, “Murder in the Castle”  in which impossible murders are committed at a castle. It had a strong Shadowesque feel. “The Boy in Blue” was good as one of the Red Panda’s most trusted operatives appears to have gone bad, and it’s interesting to see how he responds. “Jungle of Terror” finds the Red Panda and Kit flying to South America to respond to a call for help from one of the Red Panda’s allies and  ends up in an adventure involving monsters and a trip to another dimension. The season finale, “Operation Cold Feet” finds a villain planning to strike as the wedding day approaches. Kit’s not sure about the planned month-long honeymoon and there have been sightings of the Red Panda and Flying Squirrel that Kit knows nothing about. It’s a good story with a nice payoff, including the reveal of the Red Panda’s true name, a twist spoiled by Wikipedia. Thanks, Internet.

Beyond that, the series’ ongoing plotlines continued to recur and involved supernatural incursions and fascist plans to gain a foothold in the City. The series has a good way of handling them. If you’d never heard these stories before, you won’t get lost listening to them. If you’ve been listening since the start, you’ll have a sense this is all heading somewhere big as the scale of these stories escalates from season to season.

If I had one nitpick, it’s that there’s two different stories in Season 4 that have our heroes teaming up with a mad, evil supervillain to stop another  mad, evil supervillain. That’s a bit much for the number of episodes, but that’s also pretty minor, all things considered.

Overall, this is a solid season that manages to build upon the foundation of previous seasons, have fun, and not get lost in its own continuity.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

The Red Panda Adventures Season 4 is available for download for free.

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