Max Hay’s ninth musical venture was conceived as a radio experience with the sit-down listener in mind. The Helena troubadour wrote all dialog and music save for Dustin Campbell’s “On the Bright Side,” and the recording is inventive as well as hilarious.
The Christmas musical in three acts features a terrific cast of characters, and in the time-worn style of radio plays, corny ads between acts plug businesses and thank listeners for their support.
Voicing the parts are Ramsay Ballew as Lana, Dustin Campbell as Andy, Andrea Cross Guns as Debbie the Letter Carrier, Tyler Julian as Mac the Bartender, Millie McLean as Kathleen, and John Dendy as the Police Officer. Hay stars as Pathetic Patrick and the culprit, Thievin’ Steven; he’s also the play’s narrator.
The story takes place in the fictional Chester’s Corner Bar. In his ultra-smooth broadcast voice, Hay sets the scene for our armchair experience. The regular patrons are gathered at Chester’s on Christmas Eve, chatting about their favorite Christmas meal there – potato chips. Jaunty piano music accompanies Lana as she tells Andy in song about her run-in with someone in a Santa suit, and Debbie, the mail-carrier, demos a hip-hop dance which, she says, sobers her up for the mail route.
There are sounds of alcohol being poured. Pathetic Patrick receives a Dear John letter (“I’m moving to Livingston so I can be closer to John Mayer,” writes his ex, while an accordion plays in the background). Then, in the Act I cliffhanger, the caper is revealed: the chips go missing.
The play is well-paced. Hay next narrates, in his best NPR whiskey-smooth baritone voice, an ad touting the fun “festivities” and “brown liquor” at the bar. The boisterous barflies and background noises at Chester’s add to the flavor.
Act II is replete with sad music, depressed drinkers, and quiet ambience in the aftermath of the chip heist. But the patrons proceed to track down the gluttonous culprit, who has a bit of a digestive mishap. Let’s just say the sound effects here are gloriously real!
An amusing ad follows, touting the Lewis and Clark Napkin Society, which exhibits archival napkins from the famed expedition; Hay’s silky FM voice is spot-on, and his skewed sense of humor is in fine form.
This effort reminds me of the Firesign Theatre albums of the late 1960s and early 1970s. That American comedy troupe’s work featured real-time vignettes displaying screwy, keen-edged humor and background atmosphere that dropped the listener right into the scene. Hay masterfully replicates that here.
And it’s no wonder. He studied at the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences in Tempe, AZ, then worked as an audio engineer in Nashville, mixing for stage and studio. After managing a country-rock band and engineering their sound, he decided to mix his own music.
Some ambient recording was done at Helena’s Jesters Bar, a favorite watering-hole of Hay’s great-grandfather in the 1930s. Some effects were recorded in Hay’s studio, others were taken from a sound effects library. The whole project took a month to complete, not bad for such a complicated endeavor.
Back to ACT III: Wait. I won’t give any more details away. Can Chester’s locals solve the crime and make Christmas joyous again? Will it be a wonderful life after all? Check out this inspired radio play and listen for yourself.
– Mariss McTucker