“A little further!” That’s the motto of the radio-pioneer protagonists in “On Air,” the flawed if warm and diverting world premiere musical from Creative Cauldron. An exhortation to think, innovate and dream, the phrase becomes the title of an infectious song in this brisk show about Frank and Flora Conrad, who launched America’s first radio station 100 years ago.
“On Air” itself could stand to go a little further, in terms of its characterization and conceptual exploration. Written by Matt Conner (music and lyrics) and Stephen Gregory Smith (book and lyrics), and directed by both, the musical offers fascinating snippets of history, anchored by an endearing love story. The savory score, tinged with Tin Pan Alley flavors and catchy vamps, seems to capture an early-20th-century mood. But the show stints on its portrait of Frank Conrad, and the sociological contextualizing can feel cursory. (“On Air” is the fifth work from Creative Cauldron’s ambitious Bold New Works for Intimate Stages project.)
The storytelling gets a boost from Margie Jervis’s atmospheric inventor-workshop set, with its dangling bulbs. The setup principally stands in for the Conrad home, where engineer Frank (Jimmy Mavrikes) works late into the night, to the frustration of his buoyant, determined wife, Flora (Nora Palka).
After the Conrads’ home station attracts a following, Frank’s employer, Westinghouse, leverages his expertise to start the trailblazing commercial radio station KDKA. “On Air” shows the Conrads establishing such now-standard practices as commercial sponsorships, weather forecasts and, in a fun scene decked out with red, white and blue balloons, election-night specials.
The golden-voiced Palka — the production’s chief asset — packs personality into Flora, while Mavrikes suggests Frank’s social awkwardness. Owen Thiebert contributes a smashing turn as the Conrad’s young son, Francis. When the Conrads mount a home concert, Francis plays percussion with a fly swatter and skillet.
In a bit of felicitous casting, local TV and radio celebrity Robert Aubry Davis embodies the Radio Voice, whose on-air retrospective about the Conrads frames the narrative.
But Flora is the show’s central character. With scenes also featuring Flora’s oft-exasperated friend Agnes Davis (Erin Granfield), married to Frank’s colleague Harry P. Davis (Garrett Matthews), “On Air” strives commendably to put women’s experiences at the center of its narrative.
Unfortunately, although the musical dwells on Frank’s workaholism — hardly the most newsworthy aspect of the tale — it fails to delve enough into the scientific curiosity that drove him to acquire more than 200 patents. And while “On Air” broadens its canvas with references to such events as Prohibition and the women’s suffrage movement, one longs for more reflection on the philosophical and civic implications of a medium like radio.
Still, “On Air” is a tuneful, engaging tour through little-known history. Amid the seduction, tyranny and treachery of our own era’s mass media, the Conrads’ story feels meaningful, and maybe a little ominous.
On Air music and lyrics by Matt Conner; book and lyrics, Stephen Gregory Smith; directed and choreographed by Conner and Smith; music supervisor, Warren Freeman; music director, Refiye Tappan; costume design, Alison Johnson; lighting, Lynn Joslin. 90 minutes. Tickets: $20-$32. Through May 26 at Creative Cauldron, 410 S. Maple Ave., Falls Church. 703-436-9948. creativecauldron.org.