By Pat Launer
It’s a Wonderful Life , of the holiday kind
When you say, ‘I’ve got Christmas on My Mind.’
Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow
THE SHOW: Lamb’s Festival of Christmas: ‘Christmas on My Mind,’ the 13th (and newest) script by Kerry Meads in 29 years of Lambs’ Festivals.
THE STORY: A ragtag assortment of travelers gets stranded in a snowstorm, forced to stay over, for Christmas Eve and beyond, at a warm, cozy and welcoming mountain hideaway somewhere in the Western U.S. We learn all the backstories – a couple that can’t conceive; a misguided and guilt-ridden grandfather whose daughter succumbed to drug abuse; and a few adrift singles. Each is lost in more ways than one. And their host, Manny, is the catalyst for making them come to an understanding of themselves and each other. It isn’t all tied up in a red Christmas bow, like so many of the other Festival plays, but everyone is better for having shared the snowed-in experience. They all have an interest in music, and their host just happens to have a bevy of instruments hung on his walls. That provides the perfect excuse for them to sing and play and write new songs. We never do learn much about Manny, who’s something of an enigma – and an angel — to them all, He graciously takes them in, feeding their stomachs and their souls. It isn’t ham-fisted or heavy-handed; just a tad magical, and in this season, that’s just fine.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Writer/director Meads has encouraged her excellent ensemble to do what they do best. So Cris O’Bryon and Jon Lorenz tickle the ivories and compose songs, Leonard Patton wails the blues, Nathan Peirson and Taran Gray get down on guitar (and Peirson does some cool harmonica licks). Peirson is a little bit country, and Gray is a little bit rock ‘n’ roll. That gives them a point of conflict and later, of mutual understanding, if not complete acceptance. Patton is currently an MFA student in jazz studies at SDSU, and he gets to show his prodigious singing chops. And several of these multi-talented performers also composed or arranged the carols gorgeously sung throughout the show.
O’Bryon displays his humor in the funny/clever “Just Say No to Snow,” for which he wrote the music and lyrics. (In the “ sneet ,” a combination of snow and sleet, you’re likely to “fall on your keester , which will cause you pain ‘til Easter”). Lorenz wrote the music and lyrics to “The Best Part of Christmas (is Lovin ’ You),” and arranged the cute/syncopated duet he ‘creates’ with self-assured and precocious 13 year-old Allie Trim. Peirson does a fine turn on Nick Spear’s “Cowboy Christmas” (Spear, you may recall, is a former Lamb’s performer, and alum of the SDSU MFA program in musical theater). Patton is wonderful with “God Rest Ye, Reggae Gentlemen” (arranged by local musician Rik Ogden), he wrote the evocative title tune, “Christmas on My Mind,”’ and his vocals and arrangement for “O Holy Night” are superb, as is Lorenz’ arrangement of “Carol of the Bells.” The singing is marvelous (but was miking really necessary?), and everyone else in the company – Keith Jefferson, Sandy Campbell, David Cochran Heath and Season Duffy (amusing as a multi-pierced, multi-hued-hair vagabond) – gets the spotlight at some point, both musically and dramatically. Tthe Cute Award goes to the littlest Timm , Avery, who plays smartypants , inquisitive Allie’s wide-eyed younger sister.
Mike Buckley’s high-end cabin is rich in wood and detail, including a snow-trimmed roof for moon-watching and singing. Michelle Hunt’s costumes are just right for each of the interesting characters. This new script makes for a delightful evening; the talent is profuse, the singing and playing are outstanding. What’s not to like?
THE LOCATION: Lamb’s Players Theatre, through December 29. Lamb’s is also presenting their 16th annual American Christmas at the Hotel Del Coronado. As always, the ‘show’ that accompanies the 5-course meal (with a lavishly costumed cast of 30) is set 100 years ago, i.e., 1907.
BOTTOM LINE : BEST BET
It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas
THE SHOW: It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, a reprise of last year’s stellar production, based on the beloved, classic 1946 Frank Capra film
THE STORY: Nice-guy George Bailey has spent his entire life trying to get out of Bedford Falls , NY . But every time he’s just about to make his adventurous getaway, life intervenes. When his father dies and his brother gets married, George gets saddled with the stumbling savings and loan his father started years ago. He becomes the lone adversary of the wealthy, dastardly Mr. Potter, who owns most of the town. When it all becomes just too much for him, George stands on the edge of a bridge, intent on ending it all. But he’s saved in the nick of time by Clarence, his bumbling guardian angel, who shows him what life would be like for the citizens of Bedford Falls if George had never been born. From this Scrooge-like glimpse of an alternate past, present and future, George realizes that he has really made a difference, and he gratefully returns home to find that the whole town has rallied around him, happily raising the money that will bail him out of financial ruin and renew his faith in himself and humankind.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Director/designer Sean Murray has created a wonderful old radio station, WCYT in Manhattan, complete with light-up ‘Applause’ signs, a bedraggled Christmas tree, large-headed standing mics and the mesmerizing live noise-making of that Patté Award-winning Foley sound artist/wizard, Scott Paulson. Most of the cast is the same as last year, though there are a few changes. And the drama and singing feel even tighter and better than before.
Tom Andrew re-inhabits George, jogging memories with some of the speech patterns and intonations of Jimmy Stewart. But every time he has to hit an emotional peak or valley, he makes the role, the character and the feelings uniquely his own. Trevor Holingsworth , Veronica Murphy and Melissa Fernandes are back again, stronger than ever. Trevor’s great with the accents, silky voice and slick-haired look; Veronica is both sincere and funny; and no one does kids or dogs (or sexpots ) better than Fernandes. David Gallagher makes an ever sharper distinction between his two good-hearted but inept characters: scatter-brained tippler Uncle Billy and well-intentioned, if sometimes ineffectual Clarence. Jonathan Dunn-Rankin brings his stentorian tones to nasty Potter and the syrup-voiced Announcer. Brenda Dodge is new as Mary Hatch, George’s adoring wife. She does a respectable job in the role, but there’s no connection between them; he never even looks her in the eyes, so it’s hard to believe their affection or devotion. Music director/accompanist Shane Simmons provides fine keyboard backup. Jeanne Reith’s costumes and Peter Herman’s wigs and hair design perfectly convey the period. This inspirational story gets to me every time. And it will you, too.
THE LOCATION: Cygnet Theatre, through December 30
BOTTOM LINE : BEST BET
NEWS AND VIEWS ….
… Dinner seating is already sold out! So buy your Gallery tickets NOW (just $25!) … for the 11th Annual Patté Awards for Theater Excellence. This is definitely going to be The Event of the New Year. Monday, January 14, in the David & Dorothea Garfield Theatre at the Lawrence Family JCC in La Jolla . Look for the broadcast on Channel 4 San Diego (Cox and Time Warner) on Saturday, February 2 at 7pm. Tickets are available at http://tickets.lfjcc.org or the JCC box office: 858-362-1348.
… IN PRINT AND ON THE AIR… This Sunday, December 16 at 6pm, listen to Leo Cates interviewing me on KSDS-FM (Jazz88.3). in Coming soon, an interview on Art Rocks! Internet Radio & TV ( www.artrocks.ws
) ; a story in the San Diego Jewish Journal (Jan. issue); and a feature in the Del Mar Times (12/16) — all about the upcoming Patté Awards. Plus, I’ll be talkin ’ theater on KUSI-TV’s Saturday show, “Good Morning, San Diego ,” on December 29.
… A Great Story… The National Endowment for the Arts has awarded a special “Big Read” grant to promote literacy to the Black Storytellers of San Diego and the Malcolm X Branch of the San Diego Public Library. They’re among 100 organizations nationwide to host the Big Read celebration, the largest federal reading program in U.S. history. Each community is charged with celebrating reading in its own way. Locally, Dr. Annjennette McFarlin, president of Black Storytellers of San Diego, says that her group has chosen to focus on the haunting and unforgettable 1937 novel by Zora Neale Hurston, “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Local events, including book discussions, a film screening and notable author appearances, are scheduled throughout the county, to honor what McFarlin calls “one of America ’s greatest storytellers.” One-hour community information sessions will be held at the Malcolm X Public Library ( 5148 Market Street ) Dec. 14 (4:30pm), Dec. 15 (3:30pm) and Dec. 17 (5:30pm).
… and speaking of great stories, don’t miss Write Out Loud ’s Giving Season, holiday stories read aloud for the whole family. Wonderful experience; theater of the mind. This Saturday, Dec. 15, 2pm at Cygnet Theatre. Reservations at 619-297-8953, firstname.lastname@example.org.
… Dance-Man… John Malashock, four-time Emmy-winning choreographer and artistic director of Malashock Dance, is offering a three-day workshop for intermediate and advanced dancers, Dec. 27-29 at Dance Place San Diego . Register at 619-260-1622 or