Dallas — Overheard in the lobby at Theatre Three on Sunday was an exchange between two patrons in which one was trying to explain to the other that this production of A Christmas Carol was the radio drama. Finally, one of the charming women said “This is the one with B.J. Cleveland!” To which her friend responded, “Ohhh!”
That was all that needed to be said.
Yes, there are several versions of Charles Dickens' classic tale on area stages, but only one of David Albert’s A Christmas Carol: The Radio Show with the inimitable Cleveland, directed by Gene Raye Price. It's playing in T3's basement space, Theatre Too!, through Dec. 20.
Albert’s script does not rewrite Dickens’ tale; it situates the story within a different context. It is a wintry Christmas Eve. A 1940s-audience is seated in the studio of radio station WXMS, waiting to see a dramatization of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. A man enters the studio soundstage and moves about with a concerned look on his face. After a few somewhat nervous minutes he announces that the cast of actors is snowed in at a different location. They will not make it to the station in time for the scheduled broadcast. He is the sound effects guy, but in that moment he decides the broadcast must proceed as scheduled, which means it falls to him to present the play. Taking his place behind a table that is covered with sound effects materials, he positions the microphone, and begins his dramatic reading of A Christmas Carol, giving voice to 22 different characters while also producing the sound effects.
Cleveland is marvelous in this deceptively challenging role. An exercise: try reading aloud (with feeling) while dancing and writing an essay about one’s experience. Sounds ridiculous but what Cleveland has to do in this piece is very much like that.
It is no small feat to mimic horses’ hooves in a distinctive clip-clop while reading dramatically and acting from the script. The natural inclination is for the voice to fall into the clip-clop rhythm of the horses’ hooves, but Cleveland keeps the rhythm of the script distinct from the rhythm of the horses. Visually, it is a little thing that an audience might see and enjoy without ever thinking about how challenging it is to execute. Cleveland’s vocal inflections transition so fluidly that even though we watch him in a solo performance, a full cast of performers is heard.
There is humor in the piece, but this is not a comedy. The sound effects guy is a dedicated worker, a radio man, very serious about the profession. Cleveland is as sincere in his commitment to telling both stories as his character is to giving the audience the dramatic experience they expected. The sound effects materials are technically props in the play, but it is odd to say that because they are actually instruments of sound in an actual radio drama. A favorite is the big wind machine that has a variety of uses, the least of which is the production of a very convincing creaking door.
It chase all the bah-humbugs away.