note: entire contents copyright 2015 by Sheila Barth
Think back. No, back further, to Christmas Eve, 1949. Some of us have fond memories of that simpler life, when radio was the sole electronic king. Families gathered ‘round, listening to weekly serial dramas, comedies, children’s shows, amateur hours, music shows, and news.
At Stoneham Theatre’s two-act, two-hour production of Canadian playwright Lucia Frangione‘s play, “Christmas on the Air,” we return to those days. Stoneham personnel was granted special permission to adapt the show, using local area businesses, circa 1949.
We’re the live audience at Seacoast Radio WKOS’s weekly family radio show, with the Frank family, mother Yolanda (Margaret Ann Brady), dad Percival B. (Stoneham favorite William Gardiner); their overly eager son, Danny “The Kid,” (Boston star Mark Linehan), spinster-pianist, Sylvia White (Meryl Galaid), and newest member of their radio show, Kitty McNally (Meredith Stypinski). And we dutifully obey the two-sided “Applause” and “Oooh/Aaah” responsive signs Danny instructs us to follow.
Skillfully directed by Shana Gozansky, the cast scurries around the stage, during their air time, melodiously singing Christmas songs and carols and telling Christmas stories, peppered with commercials and jingles, infused with popular, local businesses of yore, such as Jordan Marsh and Woolworth’s. They run from old-style microphones to a table littered with foley props, to create sound effects.
Designer Megan Kinneen’s set is lined with period props, too. A vintage Raggedy Ann (or Andy) sits on a child’s rocking chair in the front-stage corner. In the background are a wooden sled, and other coveted toys. The radio studio at Chalmer’s Presbyterian Church in Swampscott is festively decorated with yuletide greenery, a Christmas tree, a stuffed chair by the burning hearth, and more.
The entire cast is enjoyable, but Galaid is outstanding, as lonely spinster Sylvia. She plays the piano, sings, and does a marvelously reminiscent cooking stint, decorating a chocolate Yuletide log. “There’s a surprise in every bite,” she coos. Her solo, “There’s a Bluebird on Your Window Sill,” is touching.
Designer Gail Astrid Buckley’s costumes are serendipitous, too, with 1940‘s period garb, including ladies’ seamed stockings and aprons. However, Kitty’s upsweep hairdo sits akimbo on her head, looking silly, not stunning.
Writer Frangione also built in a behind-the-scenes human interest story, While the show transmits before the studio audience and on the air, we discover Danny and Kitty have been carrying on an off-air romance. Shockingly. Kitty had a baby son, Michael, that isn’t Mark’s, but whose father is in abstentia.
While Yolanda is the image of patience, understanding, and the tie that binds everyone together, her husband, Percival, is embittered about Christmas, but superficially performs joyfully for his audiences. The Franks refer to a daughter they had, but that subject gets lost somehow.
Percival is intolerant of immorality, he intones, so he’s determined to fire Kitty, saying she mars the show’s family image with her out-of-wedlock baby son. Following a studio electrical blackout, the cast continues to entertain the in-house audience, regaling us with songs and carols, inviting us to sing along. When Danny restores the lights, peace and good will among them is restored, too.
The behind-the-scenes story is thin, but the show’s nostalgia and feel-good holiday spirit create an entertaining, carefree performance, especially for us older folks.
BOX INFO: Two-act, two hour musical holiday play, appearing at Stoneham Theatre through Dec. 27, 395 Main St., Stoneham: Wed., Dec. 23, Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2,7 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Check for additional and no-show dates. Tickets, $50-$55; seniors, $45-$50; students with valid ID, $20. Call the Box Office at 781-279-2200 or visit www.stonehamtheatre.org.