Category: Audio Drama Review

Audio Drama Review: Something Wicked This Way Comes

In Colonial Radio Theater’s 2007 adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, a carnival arrives in a small Midwestern town in late October. Two thirteen year old boys, Jim and Will, discover something sinister is behind the carnival and its leader Mr. Dark.

The story itself is pure Bradbury at his best. Superficially, it’s about a couple of kids in a small town and a scary carnival. But there’s a lot of depths and themes here such as age and youth, innocence, and evil. Yet Something Wicked This Way Comes never seems like it’s trying to be profound and it never forgets to be an entertaining and scary story.

The dialogue is not typically the way most people talk either now or then. It has a stylized, almost lyrical quality.

The production qualities are solid. I’ve listened to hundreds of hours of Audio Drama from many companies. So far, Colonial has the best sound design this side of the Atlantic. Even though it was recorded twelve years ago, the sound design and music hold up and build that creepy small-town atmosphere. Colonial’s talented team of actors delivers good performances all around and manage to handle Bradbury’s unique style of dialogue.

Overall, this is a fun and well-done take on a Bradbury classic that’s definitely worth a listen.

Rating:4.5 out of 5

Audio Drama Review: The Mark of Zorro

On the big screen, Val Kilmer played iconic heroes such as Batman and the Saint. In 2011, he added the role of Zorro in LA Theatre works presentation of The Mark of Zorro, based on Johnston McCulley’s novel The Curse of Capistrano.

The play opens with Don Diego de la Vega (Kilmer) trying to woo the beautiful Lolita Pulido (Ruth Livier) to be his wife as his father is pressuring him to wed now that he’s in his mid-twenties. Lolita isn’t interested because of his foppish, bookish nature, however she falls in love with the masked adventurer and vigilante Zorro (also Kilmer). The villainous Captain Ramon becomes a rival for Lolita while also trying to capture Zorro.

The play has some great professional sound design and music. The cast is generally good, though a couple are very broad and big for audio. Unlike another Hollywood Theatre of the Ear Production I reviewed (The Maltese Falcon), this doesn’t have each character narrating their own actions. Instead, the events are narrated by the landlord at the local tavern (Armin Shimerman) giving the effect of the story being told to you by your friendly barkeep Shimerman. This is a fun choice and the casting may be a bit of a nod to his role on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as Ferengi bar owner and landlord Quark. I also think the story story did a good job establishing the culture and values of the time.

This story strives for book accuracy probably more than any other Zorro work. That does mean there are some surprises. In most adaptations, Zorro is an action hero who romances his lady. In this adaptation, Zorro is first and foremost, a romantic figure sweeping Lolita off her feet and protecting her from Captain Ramon. The story is a bit more romantic comedy than an action tale, and the dialogue and plot isn’t exactly out of Jane Austen.

Don Diego is never revealed to be Zorro, even to the audience. Zorro’s secret identity is nearly as well-known to the public as Batman’s and Superman’s, so this is odd. It’d be like a Batman movie that never showed Batman was Bruce Wayne despite the audience knowing it. Again, I think this is an example of being loyal to the book, but it didn’t work for me.

Overall, though, this was a good time. If you’d like a Zorro tale with some adventure, political intrigue, and some cheesy romance, this is a well-acted and enjoyable way to spend a few hours.

Rating:3.75 out of 5.0

Audio Drama Review: The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas, Volume 3

This is the third six episode set of the Twilight Zone Radio Dramas presented by Falcon Picture Group. This volume, like most others in the series, adapts stories from the TV Show.

“The Obsolete Man” stars Jason Alexander (Seinfeld) as a librarian in a totalitarian state who is sentenced to die because he’s been declared obsolete. I have to admit, I was nervous about this one because the TV version featured an iconic performance by the great Burgess Meredith, but Alexander does a good job carrying the performance off and the timeless message of the story still makes it work today.

“Back There”starts Jim Caviezel (Passion of the Christ) as a young man who visits a Washington DC based club and has a conversation with four wealthy men over whether a time-traveler could change history. As often happens with those sort of debates, he finds himself transported back to 1865 on the day Abraham Lincoln is assassinated and gets a chance to test his theory. This was a nice story with a good twist at the end, though a lot of the time travel stuff is never explained.

“A Short Drink from a Certain Fountain” stars Adam West (Batman) as an older wealthy man married to a gold-digging wife who he wants to please. His brother is working on a de-aging formula that works on animals and he pressures his brother into trying it on him. The TV version is not a favorite of most fans, but this was entertaining and it’s all down to Adam West’s performance. You feel sorry for this guy, who, by modern standards, we’d consider a victim of emotional abuse.

“Nervous Man in a Four-Dollar Room” stars Adam Baldwin (Firefly) as a two-bit crook who has been ordered to commit murder. He rents a cheap room and waits to do the job and encounters one person who tries to change his mind: The man in the mirror. This one works over radio and Baldwin does a good job playing both versions of his character.

“The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” finds a suburban neighborhood cut off from civilization when power fails and no one can leave. Paranoia spreads as the residents suspect one of them is in league with whatever caused this. This was a great tale of what fear and paranoia can do to a community and, by extension, to the world. It’s a chilling cautionary tale and the radio version is almost as good as the TV take.

“Escape Clause” is a Faustian bargain story where a middle-aged hypochondriac (Mike Starr) sells his soul to the devil in exchange for being able to live as long as he wants. The story is a bit of dark comedy as the protagonist finds out immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, however I think the story has a more subtle message.

Overall, I probably enjoyed this Twilight Zone collection. The stories all work fairly well and there are a couple all-time classics that are well-handled. On top of that, we get to hear radio acting by some actors who never got to work much in the medium due to when their careers began.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5 

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Audio Drama Review: Space 1999: Breakaway

Space 1999: Breakaway is Big Finish’s feature-length audio drama re-imaging of the first episode of the 1970s Gerry Anderson TV series Space 1999.

Commander John Koenig (Mark Bonnar) returns to his post in command of Moonbase Alpha in order to facilitate the launch of a probe towards the planet Meta. However, he arrives to find a mysterious illness said to be fake takes out the pilot of his ship and has ravaged the primary crew of the Meta Probe. Doctor Helena Russell (Maria Teresa Creasey)  is trying to find some way to stop the illness while Commissioner Simmons (Timothy Bentinck) of the World Space Commission is thwarting her for fear the word of the illness will spread and stop the launch of the Meta probe.

In the interest of full disclosure, I did not grow up watching Space 1999 and have no nostalgia investment in the series. I did watch the TV episode  Breakaway” which has been made available on YouTube by DVD manufacturers Shout Factory prior to listening to the audio version. My initial impression of the TV episode is its fine. There are some interesting concepts, but it’s a bit dry for my taste.

However, the Audio Drama was superb. Writer Nicholas Briggs takes a fifty minute TV episode and turns it into an audio drama twice that length. While this is usually a recipe for a padded mess, I’m happy to report that’s not the case. The audio version has all the key plot points of the TV script with a lot of enhancements. The character feels more real and fleshed out. The pseudo-science of the series is a bit more realistic and grounded, with several aspects of the plot being far better explored over audio. The script is well-paced, it never drags. It held my interest from start to finish.

The acting is really good. I’d only heard Bonnar playing a Doctor Who enemy in Big Finish’s Doom Coalition and Ravenous box sets, so this is a very different performance. His performance is grounded, believable, and really engaging. Commander Koenig’s a man trying to make sure the Meta Probe, a project he’s put years of his life into, gets off the ground while also trying to protect the life of his crew. The story begins to reveal those goals may not be compatible. Creasey turned in a solid performance playing a character that could have easily been unlikable due to how harsh she is, but what came through is that Dr. Russell (Creasey’s role) is acting out of concern for human life and her anger is entirely appropriate.

The soundscape has nods to the original series,  but it feels modern and cinematic. The audio version also features some superb including a great new take on the original theme.

My only criticism is there’s a scene where a news interview cuts to a documentary to facilitate exposition.  That’s it, everything else is great. The listener should be warned that this is, in effect, the feature-length pilot episode that will set the stage for a new Space 1999 series and therefore raises a lot of questions that will be answered in the regular series.

Overall, this superb audio drama sets a high standard for the rest of the range.

Rating:4.5 out of 5

Space 1999: Breakaway is currently available exclusively at Big Finish’s website.

Audio Drama Review: Imagination Theatre: The Investigators

The late Jim French is best remembered for his greatest creation Seattle-based, modern private eye Harry Nile. However, French produced many detective and crime shows during his remarkable four-decades plus in radio.  Imagination Theatre: The Investigators from Radio Spirits is a sampler pack of nine different crime shows that French produced over the years as part of his imagination theatre.

The set kicks off with three episodes of Harry Nile. These shows come from 1999, towards the tail end of run of Phil Harper (the original actor to play Harry Nile.) We’ve reviewed this series extensively before, but for those who haven’t heard of it, Harry Nile is a period piece set in the late 1939 through the late 1950s. Initially, he worked out of Los Angeles, but then he moved to Seattle where French’s research and attention to detail really shine. The episodes are superb. They’re tailored to provide a complete, compelling mystery in just about 20 minutes.

Next is three episodes of The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes which isn’t to be confused with the BBC Radio series of the same name.  This stars John Patrick Lowrie as Holmes and Lawrence Albert as Watson. I’d listened to one of these before and hadn’t thought much of it. However, I did enjoy these. While they’re not the greatest Holmes’ pastiches and a few of the British accents are a bit iffy, the stories do have a Doylesque feel to them. While I wouldn’t consider them in the same league as Big Finish’s or the BBC interpretations, it’s better than 1947-49 radio version with John Stanley. If you enjoyed that take, you’ll enjoy this one as well. 

Following that, we’re treated to two episodes of The Adventures of Dameron which I was happy about.  Dameron was French’s first radio detective. The episodes in this set aired in 1972 and were set in contemporary times. Dameron (Robert E. Lee Hardwick) is a freelance troubleshooter who takes on all sorts of cases. He’s like a 1970s Frank Race, though generally with better production quality. There’s a dearth of 1970s radio detectives, so the two in this set are a definite treat.  We also get to hear actress Pat French who later played the role of Harry’ Nile’s secretary and partner Murphy.

We further get two episodes of Mr. Darnborough Investigates starring David Natalie. These are cozy mysteries made in 2005 and 2015 but they could have been done in the golden age of radio or over the BBC in the 1940s. Darnsborough is a gentleman detective who calls to mind Campion and Lord Peter Wimsey. If you enjoy those characters, you’ll like Darnsborough.

Then we get a couple episodes of Kerides the Thinker. This series has a different setting for a mystery series: Third Century BC Alexandria, Egypt. Kerides (Ulrick Dihle) is a travelling Greek student who goes around solving mysteries, accompanied by Adria, a former slave girl (Sarah Schenkkhan) who was freed after Kerides revealed her former master is a murderer. On one hand, I love the idea for the setting and it’s clear the writers did their homework. On the other hand, the mysteries are so-so and the way Adria is written makes her seem insufferably whiny and unpleasant. Instead of being grateful for her freedom, she’s upset she has lost her place in the world and has no idea what to do. It’s an interesting concept, but the way it’s realized doesn’t quite work for me.

Next up are three episodes of Kincaid, the Strange Seeker starring Terry Rose. This one is a series about a TV reporter who investigates mysteries that always have a supernatural cause such as bank robberies that turned out to be done by ghosts. I’m not a fan of supernatural mysteries, and I also wasn’t sure how to feel about these episodes. They weren’t scary and don’t have a Twilight Zone twist. The stories seemed off the wall more than anything else. In addition, I was bothered by how Kincaid got hit with unwarranted skepticism despite a solid track record. Other than that, the production values were still good. This just wasn’t my thing.

Following this, we’re given three episodes of Raffles, the Gentleman Thief starring John Armstrong. These are based on the character of A.J. Raffles, a brilliant gentleman thief created by E.W. Hornung.  These were popular in their time but have faded from public consciousness.  The adaptation does a good job of capturing the spirit of the original stories with good acting and good effects. The first two episodes are adaptations of Hornung’s original stories and the third is a solid pastiche. I’m not a huge fan of Raffles, but I could appreciate the way they handled the character. My only complaint is that Raffles, particularly as portrayed in these stories, isn’t an investigator of any sort, but plenty of people who enjoy detective fiction love Raffles. If you do, you will enjoy these stories.

Then we have the Hilary Caine Mysteries which is my second favorite thing that Jim French Productions put out. It features Australian Actress Karen Heaven as Hilary Caine, an on-staff “girl detective” for the British Tittle-Tattle Magazine. The series was set in the 1930s and finds Hilary stumbling into a crime scene being investigated by Inspector Finn (Randy Hoffmeyer). At first, she seems to be a bit silly, but ultimately she shows her cunning in solving the case. These are fun, light mysteries and Heaven is wonderful in the role of Hilary Caine.

The collection rounds up with two episodes (including one double length episode) of the Anthony Rathe Chronicles which is a modern British drama that follows the career of a guilt-ridden attorney who solves crimes to atone for a case he got wrong. It definitely has a modern BBC feel. It’s a bit soapy for my tastes, but the mysteries are well-written.

Overall, this was a fun mix of programs. While I liked some more than others, it was interesting to hear or re-listen to such a variety of detectives. It’s great to have a chance to appreciate all the audio dramas Jim French put out over nearly half a century, when most people thought audio drama was a thing of the past. I also think the success of this set may help Radio Spirits determine whether they release larger sets for Jim French series outside of the quite popular Harry Nile and Sherlock Holmes series.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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