‘Christmas on Air’ has charms, but may not be for all
STONEHAM – Listening, my beloved Susan says, is a lost art.
We don’t often take the time to hone in on just what someone is saying.
It was different when the radio was the primary source of home entertainment. With just the words to guide us, “the theater of the mind” required us to fill in the blanks behind the spoken words.
Live radio shows were often the order of the day, with a studio audience on hand whose reaction to what they were seeing added some ambiance and excitement to the proceedings.
It’s Christmas Eve 1949, and Seacoast Radio’s Station WKOS is offering its annual live Christmas show from Chalmer’s Presbyterian Church in Swampscott in the Stoneham Theatre’s production of “Christmas on the Air,” now onstage through Dec. 27.
The script has been tweaked, with permission, to include many local references to the local area circa 1949, so get ready for the Enchanted Village and Jordan Marsh blueberry muffins.
There’s fun watching the cast harmonizing for the station’s ID or watching the split second timing of the foley artist – who provided live sound effects – as well as the commercials for products popular at the time.
The warmth and skills of the cast make “Christmas on the Air” the best it can be, but it never really took off at a recent performance.
Theatrically, “Christmas on the Air” is what you might call “thin gruel” – there are a few plot lines strung onto this Christmas tree and going on in the background as the audience is treated to a collection of Christmas songs and stories by the five-person cast.
Margaret Ann Brady is Yolanda Frank, the long-suffering but loving wife of station owner Percival B. Frank (William Gardiner). Yolanda offers blunt advice to listeners and theater-goers alike and tries to soften the edges of her frazzled station owner husband, who is all business.
Gardiner has been a mainstay of Stoneham’s holiday shows for years now, and his presence as an actor/singer is always welcome.
Meryl Galaid has some nice moments as Sylvia White, who provides piano accompaniment while also hosting a hilarious cooking segment featuring an impossibly sweet recipe that would put a diabetic into a coma. Sylvia, a widow, also faces the prospect of being alone for Christmas dinner unless she can convince someone to dine with her. Stay tuned.
Meredith Stypinski is a newly-hired employee named Kitty McNally, an unwed mother with a young son and no immediate plans to marry – a big deal at the time — who is forced to bring her young son to the broadcast when her babysitter hits the road on Christmas Eve.
The baby comes as a shock to Percival, who was not informed about the situation beforehand.
Mark Linehan is a talented singer/actor and another frequent holiday visitor to Stoneham, and he plays a determined Danny “The Kid” Frank, Percival’s and Yolanda’s son, who is on a dual mission during the broadcast: both to woo Kitty and prove to the doubting Percival that he has what it takes to run a WKOS broadcast by himself.
He also flashes the signs seeking applause or “oohs” and “ahhs” from the audience when required. There are some comic moments as Linehan/Danny almost kills himself in providing sound effects to his father’s dramatic reading of “The Night Before Christmas.”
Megan Kinneen’s busy set is full of period details,with the flotsam and jetsam of a converted church gym, while the costumes by Gail Astrid Buckley are spot-on.
Director Shana Gozansky finds the humor and warmth in the piece, but there are too many hokey elements – a sing-along that includes the cast and the audience, for instance — and while hokiness is not necessarily a bad thing for a holiday show aiming for said warmth, some elements fall flat.
And, unfortunately, the joys of a live radio broadcast may be lost on younger folks whose attention span may not last the two hours of this production, which moves at a slower pace than life today.
“Christmas on the Air” is best enjoyed by those of us who are Baby Boomers and older, who have a nodding acquaintance with the times when radio actually had stories and shows, and when a family could gather around it in the living room to enjoy shows such as “Christmas on the Air.”
The Stoneham Theatre production of “Christmas on the Air.” Written by Lucia Frangione. Directed by Shana Gozansky. At the Stoneham Theatre through Dec. 27. www.stonehamtheatre.org.