Friday, December 17, 2010

colin thomas raves christmas on the air

Christmas on the Air irresistibly playful and openhearted
by Colin Thomas
Georgia Straight, December 13 2010

I was dying to sing along with the carols and other traditional songs in Christmas on the Air but, by the time the cast members finally invited us to join in, I was so overcome by feeling that I could barely croak out the notes.

Lucia Frangione’s 1994 script is a little lumpy, but still irresistibly playful and openhearted. Viewers become the live audience for the 1949 Christmas Eve broadcast of Vancouver’s CKOS radio. Gruff station director Percival B. Frank, his Dutch wife Yolanda, their young-adult son Danny, pianist Sylvia, and recently hired on-air performer Kitty don’t just sing; they also enact favourite Christmas stories, including O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi”, as well as lesser-known curiosities such as Jacob A. Riis’s “The Kid Hangs Up His Stocking”.

Hipster Danny has his eye on comely Kitty—until he realizes that the baby she’s brought into the studio with her is hers: she’s an unmarried mom. This infuriates Percival and confuses Yolanda, who are both struggling to deal with memories of a shared tragedy. Lonely Sylvia is just looking for somebody to sit down with during her holiday meal.

Before it gets into its first substantial story, the script feels fragmented, and throughout, the conventions are a bit weird. Knowing that they’re in front of a live audience, why do the characters indulge in emotional private scenes, for instance? In the end, though, none of these objections really matter; once the relationships are established, it’s easy to let the sentimental flow sweep you away.

Under Seana-Lee Wood’s musical direction—Wood also plays Sylvia—powerful and complex harmonies roll out of the cast. One of the many musical highlights is Wood’s unadorned solo in “Amazing Grace”.

And Diana Kaarina, who plays Kitty, is a knockout. She belts it out like a Broadway baby, then she pulls it back and breaks your heart with a lyrical line. She’s got great comic timing and she dances with transporting effortlessness.

Benjamin Elliott (Danny) is also a total treat. His performance is broad, but precise. His rock ’n’ roll version of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” works because it’s delivered with just the right combination of sincerity and irony. And Elliott is a gifted physical comedian, as you’ll discover when you see Danny attempt frantic sound effects for his father’s reading of Clement C. Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, which is also known as “The Night Before Christmas”.

Damon Calderwood (Percival) and Lalainia Lindbjerg (Yolanda) round out director Shel Piercy’s strong cast.

Ultimately, though, the evening belongs to playwright Frangione, who, in celebrating playfulness, reminds us what the holidays are about: the renewal of innocence and communion.

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