BWW Review: Tune in to Christmas on the Radio at Stoneham and Merrimack Rep

Christmas On The Air

Written by Lucia Frangione, Directed by Shana Gozansky; Scenic Design, Megan Kinneen; Lighting Design, Kayleigha Zawacki; Costume Design, Gail Astrid Buckley; Sound Design, John Stone; Music Direction, Bethany Aiken; Props Master, Misaki Nishymiya; Production Stage Manager, Rachel Policare; Dramaturgy, Dori Robinson

CAST (in alphabetical order): Margaret Ann Brady, Meryl Galaid, William Gardiner, Mark Linehan, Meredith Stypinski

Performances through December 27 at Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main Street, Stoneham, MA; Box Office 781-279-2200 or www.stonehamtheatre.org

It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play

Adapted by Joe Landry, Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian; Scenic Designer, Amanda Williams; Costume Designer, A. Lee Viliesis; Lighting Designer, Carter Miller; Sound Designer, Jonathan Mastro; Dialect Coach, Liz Hayes; Stage Manager, Casey L. Hagwood; Live Sound Engineer, Edrick Smith

CAST (in order of appearance): Joel Colodner, Nael Nacer, Celeste Oliva, Veronika Duerr, Jason Bowen

Performances through December 20 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 E. Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA; Box Office 978-654-4678 or www.mrt.org

In a departure from traditional seasonal fare, two local theater companies are bringing us back to the simpler days of yesteryear, staging live radio productions of Christmas shows set in the 1940s. Stoneham Theatre offers the frothy, musical bagatelle Christmas On The Air, while Merrimack Repertory Theatre presents an adaptation of the holiday film classic, It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. Replete with evocative sound effects and on-air commercial messages, both plays invite audience participation for applause and a range of emotional reactions, to replicate a live studio broadcast.

In Stoneham's Christmas On The Air, it's December 24, 1949, as Percival B. Frank (William Gardiner), his wife Yolanda (Margaret Ann Brady), and their son Danny (Mark Linehan) program an array of Christmas stories and songs on WKOS, their family radio station, with the able assistance of the lovely Kitty McNally (Meredith Stypinski), and Sylvia White (Meryl Galaid) providing piano accompaniment. P.B. is the dulcet-toned announcer and captain of the ship that never runs quite as tightly as he'd like, while Yolanda manages to plug most of the leaks before they do too much damage. Danny "The Kid" impatiently awaits his chance for a turn at the helm, even as he weighs his chances with Kitty. The plot is slight, but the ensemble works well together, with everyone taking turns reciting heartwarming stories, singing familiar Christmas tunes in multi-part harmony, and chiming in with a wide assortment of bells and whistles.

Director Shana Gozansky makes sure that the behind-the-scenes fictional chaos at WKOS never spills over into the production and nobody misses a cue. Scenic designer Megan Kineen and props master Misaki Nishimiya create the flavor of a low-budget studio which happens to be housed in a church, and Kayleigh Zawacki lights different areas of the stage as they come into play. The work of sound designer John Stone is especially important, giving us the full effect of all the aforementioned bells and whistles, and his mix of vocals and piano is perfectly blended. Speaking of blended, the full company crowds around the microphones on more than half of the songs and, if you close your eyes, their cohesive sound will transport you back to the radio days. Open your eyes, and costume designer Gail Astrid Buckley's post-war fashions will do the same.

If there is a person living in America unfamiliar with the film It's a Wonderful Life, he or she must have been sleeping à la Rip Van Winkle for the past 60 years. The Frank Capra holiday classic starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Henry Travers, and Lionel Barrymore can be viewed on television at this time of year, day or night, virtually on demand. But let me suggest that you put down the remote, get up off the couch, and mosey on over to Merrimack Rep to see a fresh take on the story, slightly abridged for the purpose of being performed on stage as a live radio play. Adapted by Joe Landry and directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, this is a brisk, entertaining 90-minutes, without an intermission, but with all of its charm and life-affirming values intact.

MRT brings together a top-notch ensemble, four of whom are making their debuts on the Lowell stage. Joel Colodner (Glengarry Glen Ross, Mrs. Whitney) returns as Freddie Filmore, the WMRT announcer/emcee who also voices mean old man Potter and scatterbrained Uncle Billy, among other characters. Nael Nacer plays the leading man Jake Laurents aka George Bailey, Celeste Oliva is his leading lady Sally Applewhite aka Mary Hatch Bailey, Veronika Duerr is Lana Sherwood who covers all of the female roles, and Jason Bowen is Harry "Jazzbo" Heywood aka the guardian angel Clarence and at least half a dozen other male roles. Together, the five-person cast distinctly voices more than forty characters (kudos to dialect coach Liz Hayes) and takes turns creating the sound effects (Jonathan Mastro, sound designer; Edrick Smith, live sound engineer).

Amanda Williams has designed a three-tiered set that features a couple of Christmas trees and simple decorations, but the focal points onstage are the arrangement of props for the sound effects and an upright player piano that cast members operate at appropriate moments. Lighting designer Carter Miller effectively alters the mood according to the time and place of the scenes, and A. Lee Viliesis creates spot on 1940s fashions that indicate the dawning of a prosperous post-war period. With the visual and aural elements establishing the world of the play, the actors can focus on interpreting their characters and connecting with each other within the intimate confines of the "radio studio," successfully conveying the drama and emotions inherent in the story.

Nacer reflects the decency and everyman quality of George, and authentically captures his frustration and desperation when he reaches the end of his rope. Oliva is darling as young Mary and shows her growth into the supportive wife, mother, and true partner to George. Duerr is a hoot as the flirty Violet Bick and sufficiently whiny as little Zuzu. Bowen showcases his versatility voicing the bodacious entrepreneur Sam Wainwright, the Italian restaurant owner Martini, George's son Tommy, brother Harry, and the town cop, Bert. Colodner's sonorous voice also brings to life George's father, the Superintendent of Angels, the drugstore owner, and the cab driver, Ernie.

Whatever your pleasure, there's something for theatergoers of all ages at these two shows. They are heavy on the nostalgia, easy on the eyes and ears, and light enough to lift both your heart and spirits. Other than a visit to Santa Claus, I can't think of a better way to celebrate the holiday season than a family outing to the theater. Tickets make the perfect stocking stuffer!

Photo credit: Meghan Moore (Celeste Oliva, Nael Nacer, Veronika Duerr, Jason Bowen, and Joel Colodner in MRT's It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play)

Photo credit: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots (Meryl Galaid, Meredith Stypinski, Mark Linehan, William Gardiner, and Margaret Ann Brady in Stoneham's Christmas On The Air)

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From This Author Nancy Grossman

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