In December 1943, when the U.S. was embroiled in World War II, families gathered around their radios for news and entertainment. “With radio technology, people were coming together, having a shared national experience for the first time,” observed Phoenicia Playhouse artistic director Michael Koegel. He has been researching the decade to mine details for the theater’s production of World War II Radio Christmas, which “brings back the old-fashioned Christmas that we’re missing when people are texting during Christmas dinner.” Veterans will be admitted free.
Opening on Friday, December 1, the show runs for three weekends, recreating a 1943 Christmas Eve broadcast. Included are live Christmas songs and swing music (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”), comedy, vignettes, ads (some for 1940s products, others for current local businesses), and letters home from GIs. One of our congressional candidates and his wife are among the actors.
This production marks the theater’s third venture into a radio-style Christmas show, the first two having been readings of play scripts, It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, interspersed with radio ads and music. “This year we are really upping the game in terms of our live performance and sound effects,” said Koegel. The current play is closer to a variety show. Six actors, two sound technicians, an announcer, and pianist Andrea Shaut appear onstage, beginning with pre-show chatter, while the audience is treated as radio studio audience.
One of the actors is local resident Paul Tomasko, who sang leading roles with the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players for 20 years. Willow Harrington is a 6’3” actress playing a Rosie the Riveter character. Geneva Turner returns to the Phoenicia stage, having starred in Dracula several years ago, and high school student Jacob Anspach recently performed in Rhinebeck. Rounding out the cast are 19th District Congressional candidate Brian Flynn and his wife, Amy Schiebe, who appeared together in The Addams Family this summer at Onteora Park, Schiebe stealing the show with one of her songs, according to Koegel. The production is directed by John Remington, seen recently in the Phoenicia Playhouse show Prelude to a Kiss. Musical direction and arrangement are by retired and beloved Onteora High School music teacher Krista Cayea.
“This show is more intricate than just putting on a radio play,” said Koegel. “For the last two years, we did scripts because there’s no memorization, and you can throw them together in a couple of weeks. This isn’t like that. The actors read scripts for the radio parts, but there’s also memorization because they’re playing actors.”
The meticulous detail, the 40s costumes, and the complex soundscape — executed by Brett Barry, Gary Kromirs, and Burr Hubbell — all create an ambiance that moves us back in time. “You’re really ensconced in that period,” said Koegel. “It recreates that moment of community when everyone’s emotions were heightened because of the war, missing people, losing people, the sacrifices people were making.”
Phoenicia Playhouse presents A World War II Radio Christmas by Kruis Tellinghusen from December 1 through 17, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 general admission, $18 for students and seniors, and veterans get in free. The theater is located at 10 Church Street, Phoenicia. For reservations, call the box office at 845-688-2279 or buy tickets online at https://phoeniciaplayhouse.com.