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Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL - THE RADIO PLAY at Ford's Theatre

An audio version of the Yuletide mainstay is offered free online and on the radio.

Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL - THE RADIO PLAY at Ford's Theatre

Ford's Theatre is squarely in the giving spirit this holiday season.

It's offering an adaptation of its popular A Christmas Carol as a radio play to all who'd like to click in and hear it - and for all those in radio-land, via a Christmas Day broadcast on WAMU 88.5 FM, which helped produce it.

Charles Dickens' Yuletide ghost story is something of a well-oiled machine at Ford's, which has been presenting some form of the play for more than 40 years.

Sixteen years ago, it began using an adaptation Michael Wilson had developed at Houston's Alley Stage and Hartford Stage more than 20 earlier that used Dickens introducing the story. Five years after its start, he provided a renovated Carol for the renovated Ford's stage that added more dancing and carols.

That makes this the third Wilson version, then, for Ford's. One that's streamlined into an hour (and hence losing most the songs and all of the dancing) and yet retains the ghost-hosted journeys through past, present and future, while having time for some nice details of the life of a humbug in the beginning of the play, contrasting so much with the reformed reveler at the end.

A radio play means none of the sumptuous costumes or fanciful sets to which audiences have become accustomed. And yet the imagination sparked by a purely aural presentation has the power to conjure the most splendid settings and costumery as the familiar story flies by.

Wilson also directed this snappy adaptation for all ages but it's a tour de force for sound designer John Gromada, who mixed and coordinated the 22 actors' voices, recorded in a variety of states, studios and home setups; carefully edited them into a coherent narrative, and did so while providing a transporting array of sound effects. You'll hear tolling bells, and the jingle of a merchant's door as it opens and closes, but also the scratches of a pen on paper and the ring of goldpieces as they are being greedily counted.

Gromada provided the music as well as keeping a couple of key selections from the stage production. Who knew the singing of the old "Barbara Allen" by Scrooge's sister Fan (Lula Talenfeld) could unleash such welling nostalgia?

Craig Wallace returns for the fifth year at Ford's to portray Ebenezer Scrooge, powered by Shakespearean training. He's so smooth-sounding in his commanding voice, though, it leaves out the cragginess one would expect of the stingy old humbug. It's all forgiven, though, when he becomes a giddy celebrant at plays's end, barely able to contain his glee.

Between the two extremes, though there are meetings with four ghosts, mind you, the accusatorial Marley's Ghost (Stephen F. Schmidt) as well as the playful Ghost of Christmas Past (Justine "Icy" Moral) and sobering Spirit of Christmas Present (Rayanne Gonzales).

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come does not speak, but is fashioned in Wilson's version as a kind of steampunk robot, representing the industrial revolution as it points grimly to a bleak future for Scrooge.

Standouts in the cast include Gregory Maheu, oozing humanity as Bob Cratchit, and 7-year-old Ian Fletcher Strati, breaking your heart as Tiny Tim, but able to return at the end as a completely different character, the amiable Christmas Day errand kid described in the online program as Turkey Boy.

The WAMU contribution comes in the form of Murray Horwitz, familiar host of its longest-running program, Sunday night's The Big Broadcast, which revives classic radio of the golden era that has included this very work - he played a 1939 CBS radio version of A Christmas Carol earlier this month, starring Lionel Barrymore and narrated by Orson Welles. No way is Horwitz an outlier among the theatrical folk - he won a Tony Award for co-writing "Ain't Misbehavin'" in 1978.

Radio adaptations allow for truly diverse casts, free from any lingering controversies over colorblind casting and Ford's has assembled an ensemble to celebrate.

And though it was made this year because of the necessities caused by closed theaters, it's a solid and efficient retelling of the Dickens tale so well done, there may be demand for its own revival in future years, long after the pandemic has passed.

Running time: One hour audio, no intermission.

Photo credit: Ian Fetcher Strati records his role as Tiny Tim. Photo courtesy Ford's Theatre.

"A Christmas Carol: The Radio Play" is available free through Jan. 1 online. It will also be broadcast Dec. 25 at noon on WAMU 88.5 FM.

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