Aside from the original Christmas story that took place in Bethlehem, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” just might be the next oldest and best-loved of them all. Since first being published in mid-December 1843, “A Christmas Carol” has been adapted in musical, non-musical, comedy and dramatic form for the stage, film, ballet and TV numerous times. Heck, Dickens himself even added it to his own public readings repertoire from 1852 until his death in 1870. Given its many incarnations, and its popularity with regional theatre companies during the holiday season, I felt like I had seen virtually every current incarnation of the story at least twice. Leave it to The Larry Keeton Theatre’s musical director Ginger Newman to prove me wrong by directing “A 1940’s Radio Christmas Carol” on stage now through December 20 at The Larry Keeton Theatre (108 Donelson Pike, Nashville, TN 37214).
Written by Walton Jones, “A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol” is a sequel of sorts to his “The 1940’s Radio Hour”. I say of sorts because only one character, Clifton Feddington, station manager at WOV, a fictional radio station in Newark, New Jersey. In this incarnation, it’s Christmas Eve,1943 the story opens as Feddington and several of his voice actor employees arrive at the studio in the lobby of the Hotel Aberdeen anxiously awaiting the arrival of guest actor and Shakespearian thespian William St. Claire who’s agreed to perform the role of Scrooge in their holiday broadcast of “A Christmas Carol”. Much like Scrooge himself, St. Claire also has some demons to battle in a subplot that incorporates emotions that no doubt loomed over the holidays during World War II.
Wisely, the playwright doesn’t get too heady on the subject of war, instead focusing on the interaction of the characters and the overall jovial holiday spirit and camaraderie of a close knit workplace. Adding to the festive mood, the show is packed tighter than Santa’s sleigh with nearly twenty tunes, mostly classic holiday fare, with a couple of new songs specifically written for the show by “High School Musical” lyricist Faye Greenberg and composer/arranger David Wohl.
Familiar to patrons of The Larry Keeton Theatre, Elliott Robinson plays Feddington. His rich, smooth voice the perfect choice for a radio announcer. Being a period piece, I do wish Robinson had hidden his decidedly modern hairstyle beneath perhaps a Santa hat and had removed his earring. That said, when he opens his mouth to speak or sing, all is forgiven.
The aforementioned St. Claire is played by Kevin Driver. Interestingly, when this show first debuted, the well-known thespian character was named Barry Moore, an obvious wink to the Barrymore family of actors, but I digress. While St. Claire may be taking on the role of Scrooge in the show within the show of “A 1940’s Radio Christmas Carol”, Driver is no stranger to Scrooge or The Larry Keeton Theatre, having twice played the miserable miser in their production of “A Christmas Carol, the Musical”. With his character, St. Claire accustom to acting on the stage, Driver produces some of the shows funnier moments when St. Claire pauses during the ‘live’ broadcast to dip into his trunk for props and wardrobe, obviously not necessary for radio.
Something that is necessary for radio is sound effects. To that end Bryan Lelek plays the station’s sound engineer/effects guy Buzz Crenshaw. It’s quite enjoyable to see Lelek’s Chrenshaw keep up with the action on-stage by providing the sound effects necessary for ‘listeners’ to get the full affect.
Set designer Jim Manning’s wall of sound in Crenshaw’s corner of the set quite entertaining, as is the entire set, complete with live mics, rather than simple prop microphones,. From the overall look of the radio station, down to the smallest detail, the set really does allow the audience to feel as if they’re the studio audience of a live radio broadcast. T. K. Kelly’s period-authentic costumes also help transform the action to pre-mid-century America, as do the female cast member’s spot-on hairstyles.
You can’t have a musical without music. To that end, with Keeton’s musical director Ginger Newman doing double duty as director, Dan Childers is cast as Toots Navarre, the radio station’s resident pianist. Nestled above the main stage in the upper right, Childers’ Navarre holds court and leads the rest of the cast in their musical numbers while he accompanies them on piano.
Of the remaining cast, each one brings something unique and different to the show. Riley Bolton as Cholly Butts becomes the butt of more than a few jokes about his love of food, while blending beautifully on such tunes as “I”ll Be Coming Down Your Chimney” and several of the show’s familiar carols.
Jason Scott makes his debut with Keeton as Fritz Caniglairo. With matinee idol looks, multiple references to his ability to procure men’s shoes at a discount, and one of the best voices in the cast, there’s no doubt we’ll be seeing more of Scott in future Keeton productions.
Also making their debuts in Keeton productions are Austin Reeves and Ava Leigh Troy as Little Jackie Sparks and Ester Lewis Pirnie, respectively. As Sparks, Reeves portrays the youngest male member of the radio station’s voice actors. He’s simply perfect as the nebbish newbie and of course he has a crush on one of his co-workers. Troy’s Pirnie on the other hand, may be the youngest female at the radio station, but she’s taking her job as stage hand very seriously. With limited scenes, these two actors make the most of the time they are on stage.
That leaves Donna Driver, Melissa Silengo Husebo and Crystal Kurek who play Margie O’Brien, Sally Simpson and Judith Davenport, the radio stations three female voice artists. Driver’s O’Brien gives off an air of brashness, while Huesbo’s Simpson seems the epitome of Rosie the Riveter and Kurek’s Davenport, the quintessential leading lady. Think Lucille Ball, Barbara Stanwyck and Rita Hayworth, all in one musical comedy from the 40s.
The show is never better than when these three ladies are singing harmony on yuletide standards like “Deck The Halls”, “Carol of the Bells” and “Silent Night”. As the show’s resident star, Kurek solos near show’s end on the original tune “Quiet Night”, backed by the rest of the cast. A fitting end to a sweet evening of holiday laughter, song and genuine emotion.
“A 1940’s Radio Christmas Carol” continues its run through December 20 at The Larry Keeton Theatre. Click Here for tickets. For more information on the show or the Keeton Theatre, Click Here. If you’ve enjoyed this review of “A 1940’s Radio Christmas Carol”, be sure and click the ‘subscribe’ tab located near the close of this review to sign up to receive FREE email alerts whenever new Nashville Entertainment content is published.