Much like Christmas carols, Christmas plays already exist in such numbers that creating a new one that puts a fresh new spin on things is quite the challenge. Kudos to Lyric Arts, then, for accepting that challenge by commissioning and mounting Christmas in the Airwaves by playwright John Patrick Bray.
Set in 1944, Christmas in the Airwaves follows the adventures of a small-town Minnesotan radio station as they perform and broadcast a live Christmas special under the shadow of World War II. It’s a clever way to set a musical; we get the drama between the characters and the musical numbers — from beloved Christmas standards to obscure 40s numbers — function as the “play within a play”. It’s clever because it doesn’t require songs to be woven into the story, and because it holds appeal to musical fans and to a certain number of non-fans, like my theatre-going accomplice who claims to “like the music but not the weird part where we’re supposed to just accept that normal people burst into coordinated song-and-dance numbers out of the blue”. In this particular production, it also meant that musical numbers were performed in front of fixed microphones in the radio’s studio, eliminating some wireless mic problems that have been found in previous Lyric shows that I’ve seen.
Christmas in the Airwaves is a sweet show. It’s got heartache, silliness, and warm fuzzies to go with the cool costumes and beautiful music. There’s a lot to watch for; at any given time you can focus on the players performing on-air, the live band, the studio director in the producer’s booth, or the station percussionist, Hubert (Michael Conroy) and his fascinating assortment of sound effect equipment.
The character development is a little light, and some of the exposition is clunky — characters explaining things to each other in unnecessary details, and odd segues to fit in helpful information. It’s a little overly earnest or, dare I say it, cheesy at times… but then, if it’s December and you’re going to a musical with “Christmas” in the title, you’re probably okay with a little cheese, aren’t you? I certainly am.
I love a show at this time of year that tells a good story while embracing the “holiday spirit” with themes of love and optimism, and Christmas in the Airwaves is just that: a good story that, while set 70 years ago, is still relevant, because it focuses on love, forgiveness, generosity, and the importance of community. The characters are a lovable bunch; just try not to fall in love with the enthusiastic, earnest Gloria (Sarah Frazier) or Brendan Veerman as the adorkable Buck, or be completely fascinated by Michael Conroy as the enigmatic Hubert. Oh, and the music really is lovely; you’ll tap your toes to Jingle Bells, giggle at Does Santa Claus Sleep with his Whiskers (over or under the sheet?), and get some serious goosebumps during Cantique de Noël. It’s a charming show with a lot of heart, and worth your time if you like holiday shows and/or musicals.
Christmas in the Airwaves by John Patrick Bray presented by Lyric Arts Main Street Stage runs November 20-December 20, 2015. The show plays at Lyric Arts, 420 East Main Street, Anoka, MN and is recommended for ages 8+. Tickets are $15-32 from http://www.lyricarts.org or by calling 763-422-1838.