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The Cary Players kicked off the holiday season by closing Monday evening, Dec. 3, on a four-day, five-show run of A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol by Walton Jones, David Wohl, and Faye Greenberg. A 2010 sequel to Jones' better known The 1940s Radio, A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol follows the 1943 Christmas Eve capers of the Feddington Players at WOV Radio. The crew broadcasts a radio adaptation of Dickens' A Christmas Carol with a stage star but radio novice, William St. Clair, as their Ebenezer Scrooge. When St. Clair uncovers an emotional trigger in Tiny Tim, he has an on-air breakdown that forces the rest of the crew to improvise an ending to Christmas Carol without their main character. The Feddington Players attempt to salvage the scene by turning to a familiar noir mystery detective, presumably from a different segment of the radio. This may be a weak attempt at variety by the playwright. The shift in style is unsubstantiated by any kind of backstory, happens too abruptly, and ends too quickly to contribute in any meaningful way, and is a significant emotional shift from what we have just witnessed in William St. Clair's revelation. This poses a challenge to any production team taking on Radio Christmas Carol, but we'll get to that. While billed as a musical, the production doesn't feature show-stopping numbers where a character bursts into song and the ensemble falls into choreography formations a la Irving Berlin's White Christmas. Rather, brief musical numbers written in warm four-part harmonies occur naturally throughout the radio show. In fact, the production incorporates only two solo pieces when all is said and done, and most benefit from the nostalgic ensemble numbers.
That emphasis on ensemble in an intimate setting captured the humble spirit of The Cary Players' production. Set designer and master carpenter Bob Grannan and his team of carpenters, set workers, and painters perfected the single setting, the paneled lobby of the Hotel Aberdeen dressed for Christmas and rearranged to host the radio show. Of note was the prolific wood graining detail. Michael Lefler's lighting design was appropriately straightforward although Act II's deviation into noir mystery storytelling could have used a different wash to help emphasize the contrast between the scheduled production and the abrupt improvisation. Costume designer Emily Johns and hair and makeup designer Zuri Blair collaborated effectively to achieve an authentic 1940s look, particularly with the iconic "victory rolls" worn by the female cast members. Perhaps the most crucial collaboration between designers occurred between sound designer Bob Kulow, prop master Christian O'Neal and Foley designer Ian Robson.* Radio Christmas Carol poses the challenge of frequent, unique sound cues called for within a radio studio before computers existed to create such sounds at the push of a button. This means that for every sound effect there must also be a prop to create the sound. Both designers rose to the challenge beautifully. Every sound cue had a corresponding prop – from a hand cranked wind machine to an apple crate to a burlap sack of broken glass. Technically speaking, each cue arrived on time and without upstaging the action and dialogue on stage, much like a well-run radio show may have done in 1943.
Just as the technical cues flowed seamlessly, the actors on stage managed multiple props and deceptively intricate blocking with ease. Rhonda Lemon and Charles Robson were tasked with the brunt of prop management and sound effects within the show as Sally Simpson and Isadore "Buzz" Crenshaw, respectively. They carried off the task with excellent comedic timing and a strong chemistry that made the abrupt romantic interest that develops between the characters (another shoehorn on the part of the playwright) more believable when it arises in the final hour. Lemon also flexed her vocal talent voicing all but two of the Cratchit children within the radio show. In fact, strong vocal talent seemed to be the standard company-wide. Robson also stood out with an operatic breakout during a commercial break. Chelsey Winstead proved a versatile voice actor with her multiple characters of radio regular, Margie O'Brien. Fellow leading lady Judith Davenport, played by Kathleen Jacob, showed proficiency with tricky melodies during her solo. Radio show trio the Boutonnieres, (Melanie Payne, Shannon Plummer White, and Kate Torgerson) under the direction of piano man "Toots" Navarre (music director Craig Johnson) led the ensemble's tight harmonies and rounded out the sound when the only musical accompaniment came from the onstage piano. Dan Martshenko's ever-serious William St. Claire foiled nicely with the strong comedic presence of Bruce Ackerman's "Cholly" Butts and Mark Anderson's Fritz Canigliaro. St. Clair's self-assumed virtuoso was also foiled well by the amateur talent "Little" Jackie Sparks (Micah Jordan), whose mother called the station multiple times during the broadcast. Jaswanth Kalavagadda and Nicola Lefler were perfect in their occasional comedic appearances as hotel concierge Harold J. Mullins and hard-nosed backstage supervisor Esther Lewis Pirnie. Chris McKittrick grounded the ensemble with gentle wisdom and subtle comedy as Clifton Feddington, WOV's seasoned front man.
Overall, The Cary Players kicked off the holiday season with a refreshingly intimate choice in a time of often ostentatious holiday productions. While the script is off the wall at times, and the music is not traditionally show-stopping, the holiday spirit arrived full force. At the heart of A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol lies the sense of community and hope that we wish to see reflected in our world, even during times of division, then and now.
*Edited/corrected 12/6/18. With thanks to Cary Players board of directors member Jeri Summer, "a Foley Artist is a person who creates (or re-creates) sounds for movies, stage or radio. For example, if the sound of an actor's footsteps were not recorded well or lost when the voice was re-recorded, a Foley artist will recreate them."