Radio 477! review. Ukraine then and now: jazz, destruction and defiance.

In 1929, a group of avant-garde artists in Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine, put on a jazz musical revue called “Hello, This Is Radio 477!” celebrating the city’s lone radio station, with music by 26-year-old rising composer Yuliy Meitus 

“The audiences loved Meitus’s music, the wild jazz dances, the set and costumes. But the Communist Party bosses did not. By the end of 1929 the first jazz show about Kharkiv disappeared.” As did some of the artists who created it, shot dead in Stalinist purges.

A radio anchor named Fish (Susan Hwang) is explaining this in the middle of “Radio 477!”, a lively, fascinating if somewhat confusing mix of poetry, commentary, sketches, music, song and dance inspired by the 1929 revue. Fish makes these remarks in-between delivering the local news of Kharkiv in 2022: “On March 7, Russian soldiers killed volunteers at the Feldman Zoo as they tried to feed the animals….Over 600,000 civilians were evacuated. They left Kharkiv by train… On March 19, Ukrainian troops pushed the Russian forces out of the city. But they continued shelling Kharkiv throughout April, killing hundreds of civilians and destroying over 2,000 buildings.”

“Radio 477!”, which is being performed at La MaMa ETC through March 19,  is not the first work of theater I’ve seen lately that dramatizes the Soviet Union’s oppression of Ukraine a century ago to illuminate parallels with the Russian invasion of Ukraine today.  In January alone, I saw  “Mothermotherland,” based on a short story written  in 1924 by a Ukrainian writer named Mykola Khyvylovy, about a head of the local secret police (called the Cheka), who sentences his mother to death for the sake of the revolution, and  “Hunger, “written by Bohdan Boychuk, a Ukrainian-born New Yorker who died in 2017, about what has come to be called the Holodomor, the man-made famine in Ukraine in 1932.

I was expecting “Radio 477!” to be something like the Ukrainian answer to “Shuffle Along” – the jazz musical revue on Broadway in 1921 that George C. Wolfe adapted in 2016, keeping some of the score, but changing the story so that it focused on the making of the original production. Virlana Tkacz of Yara Arts Group, a longtime resident company of La MaMa ETC, put together “Radio 477!” after she discovered in an archive Meitus’s score for “Hello, This is Radio 477,” long thought to be destroyed. Although only fragments of the script survived, Yara had access to the original programs, which included a detailed list of scenes.

As it turns out, though,  “Radio 477!” is an entirely new show inspired by the old one. Although the scenes correspond to those in the original (taking place in a main street, a shopping center, a park, a theater stage, etc.), the  text is written by Serhiy Zhadan, a celebrated 48-year-old Ukrainian poet and musician who lives in Kharkiv. Even the music is by New York composer and pianist Anthony Coleman, who is said to be “inspired” by Yuliy Meitus’s 1929 score. I’m not sure what this means, nor why they couldn’t just play Meitus’s original melodies. But the jazz was certainly a pleasing enough mix of sounds, from lively Big Band to bluesy ballad.

The show seems to take place entirely in the present day, some scenes apparently set right before the invasion, and some after it. I was confused about whether some scenes are meant to take place a century ago, since some of the characters work for Radio 477, a station that existed in the 1920s, but is not one of the 23 radio stations in Kharkiv presently.  I also wasn’t sure whether scenes meant to be satirical were satirizing recent events or those in the past, or whether they were in fact alluding to anything specific. (there is talk, for example, of a mayor running for reelection even though he is dead.). 

For all the undeniable talent on display, and the colorful sets and costumes, “Radio 477!” had the feel for me of the kind of random, fragmented theater stitched together in a time of crisis – much like the net-a-thons and digital theater anthologies  during the pandemic shutdown – drawing us in because of the passion, rather than the polish, and because of our desire to show our solidarity. 

But I’ll admit to the possibility that I was culturally ill-equipped to have a full appreciation of the evening.  I happened to sit next to a Ukrainian-born New Yorker who was clearly thrilled with Zhadan’s poetry – which was translated into English during the show, but the night I attended, the poet himself made an appearance afterwards, on stage with American poet Reginald Dwayne Betts; they took turns reading and translating each other’s poetry, English-to-Ukrainian, Ukrainian-to-English. My Ukrainian seatmate captured the entire exchange on his smart phone.

Even I understood how infectious Zhadan’s affection for Kharkiv, evident in his poems throughout “Radio 477!” At one point, Fish recites:

It is not enough to love only what’s new
Hundred years ago this city played and sang
Music, art, poetry bubbled and flowed
And this city was the source of it all

The show ends with a poem entitled “Kharkiv.” The first stanza:

The city as concentrated light
The city as love stitched to skin
Silent fire crackling
The city as musical score 
A composition of joy
the tender voice of a woman singing

The last stanza:

A year and the great war slogs on. A year since they started bombing our city.
But the night fires blaze, illuminating the spring sky
And the light reveals the (lack of?) scenery 
As the orchestra perpetually tunes up
Light is passed on like wisdom
Music is passed on like blood

Radio 477!
La MaMa through March 19
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $30
Conceived and directed by Virlana Tkacz,
Text and poetry by Serhiy Zhadan 
music by Anthony Coleman inspired by Yuliy Meitus’s 1929 score 
Performers: George Drance, Noah Firth, Silvana Gonzalez, Bob Holman, Oksana Horban, Akiko Hiroshima, Susan Hwang, Petro Ninovskyi and Lesya Verba 
musicians: Anthony Coleman (piano), Sir Frank London (trumpet) Marty Ehrlich (clarinet), Paul Brantley (cello), Erica Mancini (accordion), Anna Abondolo/Hannah Dunton (bass) and James Paul Nadien (drums), with DJ Daria Kolomiec 
Choreography: Shigeko Sara Suga, costumes: Keiko Obremski, lighingt design: Margaret Peebles, sound design: Marek Soltis, set
and graphics Waldemart Klyuzko with Evhen Kopiov, projections: Hoa Bai 
technical director & rigging: Watoku Ueno, assistant director: Sokolenko, 
stage manager: Kateryna Diumina, production manager: Nadia Tatchyn 

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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