The year is 1947. Bob Bennett, Manager at Radio Station KXMS, happens to catch the phone at an inopportune moment. The cast and orchestra for a Christmas Eve broadcast of A Christmas Carol is snowed in, so it falls to Bob to take on this gargantuan task. Twenty-one characters with sound effects. Even if Bennett has some experience with such performances, he is the only one at the studio, so me must be alert, focused and poised. He barely has time to gather his wits before the show is scheduled.
One hesitates when considering such shows, which tend to lend themselves to the frantic and the cloying. We imagine some overworked, underpaid guy, struggling to make his cues, and strategically, feverishly delivering twenty-one distinct voices, while doing justice to the familiar yarn. Perhaps too familiar. While the premise certainly provides ample opportunity for zany physical comedy and shameless appeals to our most tender feelings of nostalgia and yearning for Christmas redemption, somehow star, B.J. Cleveland and playwright David Alberts find a legitimate path to exploring Dickens’ ultimately sympathetic portrait of hapless, miserable, cantankerous Ebenezer Scrooge.
It’s a given that in a one-man show of this sort casting is crucial. Not just because the actor must be resourceful enough to carry the piece for ninety minutes straight, but the ingenuity to bring just the touch and balance to take us through the story without merely pushing our buttons. Without crossing the line from pathos into maudlin melodrama. Boiled in their own pudding? Die and decrease the surplus population? Egads! What kind of monster is this Scrooge bastard, anyway?
Lucky for us, director Gene Ray Price and Cleveland refused to take the easy way out, bringing fresh energy and imaginative interpretation to content most of us could repeat in our sleep. Cleveland brings his stirring, emotionally rich texture to this show, earning genuine ticklish hilarity, somber grief, and aching for the man who had no family to share Christmas as a boy and lost his fiancee on a Christmas Eve. Cleveland knows how to invite us into his personal journey, never settling for derivative or easy response. In a season where theatres grope for something different yet true to the spirit of joy and generosity, Cleveland uses his mastery to include us in a lovely, profoundly moving experience.
Theatre Too presents: A Christmas Carol: The Radio Show, playing November 25th-December 11th, 2016. 2800 Routh Street, Suite 168, Dallas, TX 75201-1417. theatre3dallas.com. 214-871-3300.