BWW Review: A Green Light for THE OLD TIME GOSPEL RADIO CHRISTMAS
If you remember the glory days of a show now no longer called A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION, before it was marred by the pitfalls and transgressions of a modern age, and especially if you ever saw it in person, on one of its PBS specials, or on live stream, then you've experienced the magic of watching a live radio variety show being made. There's something special about seeing inside the experience, about the fourth wall breaking of seeing sound happen.
That, besides some fine gospel and bluegrass, is what's made Servant Stage Company's THE OLD-TIME GOSPEL RADIO HOUR so popular that it's been translated into THE OLD TIME GOSPEL RADIO CHRISTMAS. The live audience is transported to a world of "Applause" signs, stage direction, sound, and entertainers that need to delight a live audience and a separate one that can't see them, often calling for stagey discussion and explanation that helps listeners but sometimes baffles the live viewers seated there. Servant Stage's Christmas production falls into that camp neatly and enjoyably, with, however, a little less gospel and bluegrass than one might hope; it isn't an Appalachian musical Christmas as much as some might hope. Nonetheless, it's wildly entertaining and very funny, while keeping a focus on the reason for the holiday.
Varying performers, depending on the night, take the roles of Announcer, Assistant, and the members of the various performing groups of the show - the Plaid Tidings (in plaid outfits straight out of FOREVER PLAID, with the same peppy attitude of those heroic singers), The Christmas Belles, the Candy Cane Carolers (one of several juvenile groups), and Servant Stage's beloved Backwoods Bluegrass Band, which has erupted as its own musical/theatrical sensation in the area.
On the night we visited, Jon Rider, as the Announcer, bounced from geniality to geniality with the air of a slightly bemused mad scientist working out the perfect formula for a Christmas radio show. Surrounded by chairs for performers, a Christmas tree, and a twelve-foot Nutcracker, as well as Bryson Buffington as his assistant and applause sign worker, he navigated the audience through an evening of well-loved Christmas music, including one of the area's most popular singers, Reji Woods, who performed, in solos, "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," "The Christmas Song," and "I'll Be Home For Christmas."
The gaily dressed children's groups - you can't argue with boys in white tie and tails, or green Christmas choir robes - performed a wide variety of children's songs as well as others, including a spirited "Here Comes Santa Claus."
The Three Maggies (none of whom are actually named Maggie in real life) gave some of the sparkliest performances, including "Let it Snow" and "Sleigh Ride."
But it was the Backwoods Bluegrass Band that led many of the traditional numbers and of course all of the bluegrass arrangements, from "It's Christmas Time Again" on, with Jonah Martin on bass and Andrew Zembower on mandolin cutting loose and delighting the audience at the Lancaster Alliance Church (other venues included The Red Caboose Motel and local nursing homes).
Non-musical moments included scenes between Rider and Buffington on the assistant's usefulness to the show, and Rider beginning, the cast continuing, and Buffington leading a retelling of the Christmas story that kept audience attention for something they already knew by heart.
As with all Servant Stage productions the show was warm, welcoming, and accessible both to the disabled and to those without much theatre experience as well as those with limited income (Servant Stage uses a "pay what you will" approach to its ticket pricing, allowing people to attend professional theatre they otherwise might not be able to afford.)
Although Christmas shows have wrapped for the season, Servant Stage will begin its new season in February with a production of THE MARVELOUS WONDERETTES. For information, visit servantstagecompany.com.