Review: New City Players Continues Radio Play Holiday Tradition with A CHRISTMAS CAROL

This world-premiere adaptation will run through December 23

By: Dec. 04, 2023
Review: New City Players Continues Radio Play Holiday Tradition with A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Last year, I had the honor of reviewing New City Players’ production of “It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” at Island City Stage. The article concluded with the following line: “I hope New City Players can make ‘It's A Wonderful Life’ an annual tradition for seasons to come.” This season, New City Players once again transports audiences to the studios of WNCP: Playhouse of the Air. However, rather than reviving “It’s A Wonderful Life,” New City Players decided to stage the Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol.”

This world-premiere adaptation by Tyler Johnson Grimes takes place on Christmas Eve 1971–30 years after the events of “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Freddie Filmore, the station’s longtime owner, has passed away. His son, Alastair (played by Carlos Alayeto), inherits the now cash-strapped studio. Down on his luck and desperate for money, Alastair decides to sell WNCP to a cable television network. This angers his radio team: including his sister Frances Magon (Laura Argo), his ex-fiancee June Lockhart (Caroline Tarantolo), and his longtime friend Walter R. Booth (Noah Levine). When the team presents their final live broadcast of “A Christmas Carol,” Alastair meets three spirits in the same manner as Ebenezer Scrooge.

Grimes, who performs double duty as both playwright and sound designer, delivers an adaptation that stays true to Dickens’ source material while simultaneously crafting an original story that models Scrooge’s journey from miserly to merry. The first quarter of the script separates the real-life plot events from the radio play, with Alastair playing the role of Scrooge. However, by the time Jacob Marley’s ghost enters, Alastair appears to have an out-of-body experience as he encounters events from his past. There are several other clear parallels between the characters of Dickens’ novella and Grimes’ script: with Frances representing Marley, June representing Scrooge’s fiancee Belle, Walter representing Bob Cratchit, and Walter’s ailing niece Claire Phillips (played by Marlo Rodriguez) representing Tiny Tim. While this play is regularly filled with high-stakes pathos, comic relief occurs in the form of festive commercials for cat food and hemorrhoid cream.

New City Players’ Producing Artistic Director Timothy Mark Davis stages this adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” with the same energy and holiday spirit as “It’s A Wonderful Life” by reuniting most of the actors back from last year’s production. Even in a tiny black box theater, Davis creates clean stage pictures while keeping the action fluid and ongoing throughout the evening. When three actors are at the microphones center stage, the remaining three actors act authentically as they execute Foley cues and converse with one another.

Although the actors play different roles in “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s A Wonderful Life,” the show’s ensemble maintains a close-knit chemistry, with most of the actors never leaving the stage throughout the evening. Their energy remains consistent, and their collective storytelling ability keeps the audience engaged for the show’s 90-minute run time. Near the final scene of the play, as Alastair promises to change his ways, the rest of the ensemble can be heard singing “O Holy Night” a cappella. Whether singing quietly in unison or at a fortissimo in harmony, the actors maintain a blended sound.

In the role of Alastair Filmore, Alayeto creates a cynical character that easily contrasts with the optimism once displayed by Freddie Filmore. His character arc is well-defined from start to finish. While Alayeto effectively shifts from a polished American dialect to a Received Pronunciation British dialect for the role of Scrooge, there could be more opportunities for the actor to explore his vocal range to distinguish his two characters.

As June Lockhart, Tarantolo maintains an air of class in her performance. Even when delivering an intense monologue criticizing Alastair’s obsession with money and success, Tarantolo remains grounded throughout. Additionally, her vocal variety is effectively showcased when playing roles such as Scrooge’s sister Fan and a gentlewoman charity worker.

Portraying Walter R. Booth, Levine deftly switches between the roles of Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, Fezziwig, and many others. His warmth shines through whether he is hosting the radio broadcast or playing Santa in an ad for Anusol Hemorrhoid Ointment.

As Claire, Rodriguez carries a delicate balance between a sassy rising star and a vulnerable woman whose health is challenged. Whether she is delivering a sassy retort or holding back a severe cough, Rodriguez keeps her character based in reality while allowing herself to let loose onstage. That said, I feel like there could be more opportunities for Rodriguez and Grimes to explore Claire’s illness and her precocious talent in greater depth.

While Alayeto, Tarantolo, Booth, Levine and Rodriguez all appeared in last year’s production of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” New City Players welcomes two newcomers to the WNCP ensemble—Argo as Frances Magon and Gustavo Garcia as used car salesman and radio contest winner Pat Williams.

In the role of Frances, Argo is mousey yet firm, with strong vocal delivery veiled by her sweet nature. This is easily contrasted by her imposing and scrappy portrayal of Jacob Marley. In her ghastly role, Argo parades the stage ready to pounce with her intimidating death stare. This embodiment of Marley proves Argo’s versatility as a performer.

As far as physical comedy is concerned, Garcia’s brash and boisterous performance as Pat stands out among the rest of the cast. Whether he is struggling with his microphone placement or screwing up a Foley cue, Garcia’s humility shines through. As the Ghost of Christmas Present, Garcia adds a slight Cockney accent and air of grace to his performance without compromising Pat’s working-class spirit.

Compared to last season’s “It’s A Wonderful Life,” this staging of “A Christmas Carol” expands the kitschy aesthetic of the WNCP studio. Prop and Set Dressing Designer Jameelah Bailey and Scenic Painter Aubrey Kastell bring this decked-out yet run-down radio station to life with soundproofing panels, a WNCP logo painted on the back wall, a foil Christmas tree, and multicolored Christmas lights.

This surprisingly cozy design extends into the lobby of Island City Stage, complete with Christmas decorations and a television playing 1970s holiday commercials. The lobby and the stage set all pay tribute to last year’s production of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” with actors performing on “The Freddie Filmore Memorial Stage.” Ornately framed photos from last year’s production are hung from the walls with reverence.

Casey Sacco dresses the actors in smart casual 1970s fashion, ranging from bell-bottom jeans and turtlenecks to velvet jackets and ascots. While more contemporary and relaxed compared to the 1940s attire from “It’s A Wonderful Life,” Sacco’s designs allow each actor to show off their characters’ personalities through their outfits and hairstyles.

As the playwright, Grimes can exercise greater creative control when designing sound and Foley. However, for this production of “A Christmas Carol,” Grimes displays restraint. While “It’s A Wonderful Life” contained a literal plethora of bells and whistles, “A Christmas Carol” uses what appears to be less than ten noticeable Foley props—most notably a wind machine, high heels, and a door. This minimalist design allows the audience to focus more on the story, rather than the action behind the scenes.

This unique adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” is the perfect reminder that even a small-scale theater company like New City Players can create a theatrical experience that the community can enjoy. While the Maltz Jupiter Theatre can present a realistic  “Christmas Carol” with Victorian costumes and a full set, New City Players makes up for the lack of spectacle with charm, heart, and humility.