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The show must go on — even off the bus

The Old Time Traveling Radio Show troupe was headed to San Francisco from Portland — or maybe it was headed to Portland from San Francisco.

OK, this really doesn't matter. Either way, the point is, one bus has broken down in Medford, and the other is still en route — with the troupe's entire orchestra and its sound-effects man on board.

It's a crisis for sure. But there's this theater in Medford, this Craterian, where our heroes could, with a little pluck and a lot of luck, do the show. Maybe. Only there's no orchestra or sound guy, the show's three divas are sniping at each other, and master of ceremonies Buzz Clarington is hitting the bottle.

All together now: The. Show. Must. Go. On.

Next Stage Repertory Company's "The Old Time Traveling Radio Show," which opened Friday night at the (real) Craterian Theater, is an ensemble comedy set in the world of radio in the days before television. A comic pastiche of old songs, faux commercials and melodramatic skits, it was written by Next Stage Rep's artistic director, Doug Warner, who also plays Buzz, and Gwen Overland, who plays the ditzy Fern, who plays piano throughout.

In this show-within-a-show (with the audience played by the audience), there are dopey commercials for imaginary products that are almost familiar: Sahara Extra Dry Deodorant, Old Liberty Cigarettes, Aqua-Seltzer ("Say, look at all those tiny bubbles!").

There are the requisite local references. The bus is in a shop in Jacksonville. Fern is from White City. Stan the Bus Driver is from Buncom.

There are those serialized dramas that were a staple of the radio of the day.

In "Ruff the Wonder Dog," our four-legged hero and his human, Skippy, played by Billie Barnett (played by Adam Cuppy), save Billie's girlfriend from dastardly Martians. In "Nick Savage, Private Eye," Buzz is a hard-boiled detective talking to a beautiful client.

Buzz: What's your name?

Girl: Althea Thoon.

Buzz: Whath your hurry?

Puns are frequent and pungent. In an episode of a recurring oater called "Cowboy Carl," Cowboy Carl tells one of the town ladies the Dingle Gang is no match for justice, and her face goes blank as she tries to grasp this idea.

"Just us?" she deadpans.

Much of this is quite funny, with no pretense of any redeeming social significance. The send-ups are soft, never savage, a tongue-in-cheek homage.

And yes, you probably can't not think of Lake Wobegon, minus the Norwegian/Lutheran angle. Instead of Guy Noir, there's Nick Savage. Instead of Dusty and Lefty in "The Lives of the Cowboys," there's Cowboy Carl. In "Aunt Betty's True-Life Stories," Fern keeps losing the thread — say, how to make fruitcake — and going off on free-association tangents.

An ongoing gag concerns the efforts of Stan the Bus Driver (Eric Epstein) to produce the sound effects radio relied on back in the day. Wearing a goofy helmet with a bell on top and manning the APPLAUSE sign, Stan struggles to master a preposterous assortment of whistles, horns, drumsticks, rattles, shoes and whatnot. He's also required to bark, meow, oink and more as he imitates cows, pigs, snakes, a rooster, a woodpecker.

In between skits and commercials are songs, vintage pop classics accompanied by Fern, who turns out to be an accomplished pianist (who knew?). There's musical talent in the cast, and unlike the skits and commercials, the tunes are done straight.

Lounge singer Jeanette (Jade Chavis Watt) torches it up with the snaky "A Guy That Takes His Time." Diva Vivienne (Presila Quinby) warbles "Bewitched." The redoubtable Peggy (Arlene Horwitz Warner) belts out "I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate." Tunes such as "It's Been a Long, Long Time," "Love Letters Straight From My Heart" and "The White Cliffs of Dover" are done for the most part with gusto.

There's a danger in period send-ups. As the target — an era — recedes ever further from the present, it becomes sketchier to audiences, and some things may not register. Warner and Overland use such broad strokes that this doesn't become a problem.

There is a different kind of problem, and it's about the songs, especially in the second act. This is not a classic musical comedy in which songs move the action forward, but more of an olio. The songs interrupt the action. So that when a singer is performing (it's radio, after all), everything else stops, the other actors wind up sitting around with nothing to do, and momentum is squandered.

There is a through-line here, after all, albeit a wispy one. It's about getting the show on, and that's about putting differences aside and pulling together to overcome obstacles. But these things won't bear too much thought. The point is not the journey but the fun along the way.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com.

The show must go on even off the bus