When he was a student at Yale in 1974, Walton Jones created The 1940's Radio Hour, a tuneful, low-key Christmas charmer. Jones went on to a career in writing, directing and teaching, eventually taking over the theater division at Colorado State University. There he wrote a sequel: The 1940's Radio Christmas Carol. The setting, as before, is a funky radio station, the time a year later. But the wonderful selection of old songs that keeps Radio Hour aloft is gone; this new script relies on mild jokes and the interactions among radio personnel as they present their own version of A Christmas Carol, pausing for ads, little chats with the studio audience and a call-in contest.
For a while, as radio manager Clifton Feddington pitches questions to the audience, hustles his performers and generally works to keep things on track, you can't help wondering just why you're watching this Bas Bleu Theatre Company production. Clearly, the show is supposed to be a slice of life, as awkward, desultory and filled with non sequiturs as life itself often seems — but in the theater, even desultoriness needs to be animated by an underlying sense of purpose, or at least incipient purpose.
Beyond the fine music, much of The 1940's Radio Hour's appeal stems from the relationships among the characters. Though they're only sketched in, it's clear that each of these folks is a full-fleshed individual, and each has a life outside the studio. In a piece like this, it's important to have a sense of people moving in and out of the frame placed around a segment of time. But we don't really get to know anything about the crew in Radio Christmas Carol — several men and one significant woman (a laconic female stagehand named Esther also makes a couple of brief appearances) — and they don't express any particular feelings toward one another. Even the telling, eccentric, quotidian details of a radio setup that Radio Hour offers are missing here.
Part of the problem might be that the Fort Collins cast has not yet developed the interplay needed to enliven the production; the ensemble work will surely become stronger as the run progresses. Jones originally intended to direct the play himself, but he became ill. Artistic director Wendy Ishii (who also plays Esther) stepped in. She is listed as co-director on the program, along with Denver theater veteran Terry Dodd. Rich Hicks plays Barry Moore (pun intended), the ham actor who's been cast as Scrooge. So vain is Moore that at a pivotal moment, he reverts to his usual role as a private eye in an ongoing mystery serial, initiating an investigation into the disappearance of Tiny Tim. This sequence is funny, and would be even funnier played with cleaner timing and more vitality. Bruce Bergquist's Feddington is natty and appealing in an understated, silver-haired way. Ishii has a couple of brief, hilarious bits as scared and sullen Esther. I like Rob Seligmann's glossy tones and nuttily urbane Stephen-Fry-as-Jeeves quality. Moe Ambrose-Cohen is short and smooth, with a talent for voices and accents. The real find is Niccole Carner, who has a compelling presence and the most charming dimples imaginable. Every time you look at her, you find yourself smiling. Toward the end of the evening, she sings the show's only song, and though you can tell she's got a lovely natural voice, it never really soars. Still, her singing gets under your defenses and moves you in the way a big emotional number never could.
1940's Radio Christmas Carol may not be a smash, but it does create a sweet holiday sense of peace and community.