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The Gladstone’s Christmas tradition returns

By Brian Carroll on December 11, 2014

An evening bookended by gifts.

But first, a word of advice, O gentle reader, before you enter the theatre: The Gladstone bar is featuring eggnog, with or without Sailor Jerry rum. Order yours before the show for intermission. It’s very popular.

The Radio Show has become a Christmas tradition at The Gladstone. As befits a tradition, much of the set, props and costumes haven’t changed from previous years. The standing microphones and lecterns for the voice actors. The mics and chairs for the a cappella trio, The Gladstone Sisters. The seats for the actors to rest between parts. A sound stage behind the actors. Michelle LeBlanc’s trademark chewing gum and her little wiggle as she settles into a chair. John Koensgen’s spiffy tuxedo. The Art Deco set that looks like giant radios.

First impression is of the 40s-style harmonies of the Gladstone Sisters (Michele Fansett, Cindy Beaton and Robin Guy) which are as tight as those of the Andrews Sisters. Whether they’re singing Christmas songs (familiar or obscure), carols, or ad jingles, their harmonies entrance us. The beauty of said harmonies is one of the magical charms of the show.

The ladies’ curves also entrance the eyes of the radio host played (appropriately) by CBC Radio news announcer, David Gerow.  But I digress…

Part of the tradition is that we, the “studio” audience, get a look at what went on in a live 1940s radio broadcast, where chaos threatened at any moment. The sound man who has a tendency to overact must be held in check by the controlling producer. The girl group sometimes miss their cues. The actors make eyes at each others behind their on-air colleagues. The announcer stumbles on difficult vocabulary. The sound effects equipment takes on a character of its own, dominating the back of the set.

First of the bookending gifts is O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi. This is the first of four stories that make up the evening’s classics. John Cook has adapted Magi as a radio play. It has the sound and feel of 1940s Americana.

But there’s something missing. O. Henry wrote that Della’s hair would have been the envy of the Queen of Sheba. The modern equivalent would be the calf-length tresses of dancer Margie Gillis. Cook’s adaptation retains the monetary value of Della’s hair, but loses its emotional value to her and her husband.

Cook has chosen to downplay Della’s emotional reaction to the expensive combs that Jim gives her. It may be appropriate to the upbeat character of post-war radio, and more politically correct for our time, but it blunts some of the poignancy of the original 1905 story.

The parts of Della and Jim Dillingham Young are admirably portrayed by Katie Bunting and Omar Dabaghi-Pacheko. But that only left me wanting more of the original O. Henry story in Cook’s adaptation.

Michelle Leblanc. Photo by David Whiteley.

Michelle Leblanc. Photo by David Whiteley.

The second story, George’s Christmas Present, is a Lucille Ball episode of the radio version of My Favorite Husband. It has the feel of a relic cast in amber. Michelle LeBlanc does an fine job of channelling Lucille Ball’s voice and David Gerow bears a striking visual resemblance to her radio co-star Richard Denning.

But My Favorite Husband pales in comparison to the televised I Love Lucy, which came alive with the characters of Desi Arnez (Ball’s real-life husband) and Ethel and Fred Mertz, three wonderful foils to Ball’s wacky antics.

The plot of George’s Christmas Present is as thin and as silly as many I Love Lucy scripts. But the characters of husband George Cooper and housemaid Katy are insufficient matches for Liz Cooper’s (Ball) capers and mannerisms.

There are hints of Ball’s appeal to audiences, but without the interactions with stronger characters, Present feels like a museum piece, in spite of LeBlanc’s talents.

Following the first half you may be tempted to slip away. But stay, gentle reader, and sip your eggnog. The best is yet to come. The second half is worth the price of admission.

This half begins with a two-hander between John Koensgen as the narrator of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, and Jonah Lerner as the new sound effects man. The interaction between the two maintains the traditional feel of this beloved story, while giving it a fresh take. Koensgen gets to ham it up – a treat. Lerner provides a visual flair to his sound effects that delights the audience’s eyes as well as ears.

Then comes the gold piece hidden in the Christmas fruitcake. The last story is David Whiteley’s touching translation and adaptation of Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. This is a fantasy about a young prince who falls to earth from his asteroid and is found in the Sahara Desert by a pilot who is trying to fix a grounded airplane.

Whiteley’s translation sparkles like a jewel thanks to the skillful delivery of the actors, and Teri Loretto-Valentik’s seamless direction.

Michelle LeBlanc’s little prince encapsulates the charm, wonder, other-worldliness, confusion, regrets and sudden outbursts of tears of this little boy trying to understand our world (and his own). In stature LeBlanc is a women behind a mic. But close your eyes and her voice is that of the little boy from asteroid B-6-1-2. It is that philosophical little boy who touches our hearts.

Koensgen is the gruff narrator, Saint-Exupéry, who just wants to repair his plane before his water supply runs out. But he becomes more and more intrigued by his unbidden companion who “asks more questions than he answers”. Koensgen embodies our feelings towards this little boy who… (no spoilers if you haven’t read the novella).

Katie Bunting is the prince’s favourite flower back on his asteroid. Demanding, yet beautiful. Strong and armoured with thorns, yet vulnerable to the night wind. She touches the prince’s heart while adding to his confusion about his place in the universe.

David Gerow is the s-s-s-snake who greets the prince on his arrival to Earth. Deadly and sinister, yet also charming and disarming.

But it is especially Omar Dabaghi-Pacheco as the fox who helps the prince understand his place in these worlds. “One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

When Koensgen closes the tale, we feel that we have received a great gift. It’s a gift worthy of our entire evening.

The Radio Show: Christmas Classics by (PL?-sive) Productions is playing at the Gladstone Theatre. Thursday and Friday December 11th and 12th at 7:30PM. Saturday December 13th at 2:30PM and 7:30PM. Sunday December 14th at 2:30PM. Adult tickets are $34 (including HST). Senior tickets are $30. Student/Artist/Unwaged tickets are $20.