By Pat Launer
It’s two weeks before Christmas
And on every stage,
There are crèches,
And carols from every age.
Every conceivable Christmas proclivity
From The Grinch to the Lambs to the Black Nativity.
But if “Merry Christmas” is not in your sight;
Then the show, “Pete ‘n’ Keely ,” will be your Good Night.
THE SHOW: How the Grinch Stole Christmas – eighth year for the Globe favorite, and still going strong – despite the decidedly un-Seussian rhymes of Timothy Mason (book and lyrics). Catchy tunes by Mel Marvin, but not as clever or memorable as “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” Inventive direction by Jack O’Brien (annually recreated by Brendon Fox).
THE SCOOP: A delight for kids of all ages.
THE STORY, THE PLAYERS, THE PRODUCTION: If you don’t know the story, you must be living in a deep cave under the sea. The Green Meanie tries to stop Christmas from coming, but the holiday joy shines through in the Whos , presents or not. Little Cindy-Lou (adorably irresistible Mackenzie Holmes the night I was there) saves the day, and restores (and expands) the Heart of the Grinch. The new Mean One is Leo Daignault , who was an original Plaid, and also appeared in Avenue Q and toured nationally in the Full Monty, The Scarlet Pimpernel and Miss Saigon. He has a dark edge, and a sarcastic tone, but he’s neither mugging nor nasty, and he makes a convincing transformation at the end. Mellow-voiced, tail-wagging Ken Land returns as Old Max, and lovable Rusty Ross continues in the frisky role of Young Max (though funnyman Ryan Drummond steps in for a day on December 23). The primary Who Family still features Melinda Gilb as the shrieky Mama Who, James Vasquez as her kind-hearted hubby, Papa J.P. Who , and Eileen Bowman is still the bent and be- shawled Grandma Who. Steve Gunderson, who was the original Papa Who, has aged into Grandpa Seth Who. Their four-part harmonies still sing. The Ensemble is as strong as ever, too, with return visits from Alex Apostolidis , Ryan Drummond, Danielle Forsgren , Warren G. Nolan, Ron Christopher Jones and Jessa Watson (a welcome stage presence; we miss you, Jessa!). A standout among the younger set (in the White Group I saw; there’s also an alternating Red Group) was cute-as-a-button Ari Lerner. The set and costumes are as magical and whimsical as ever, and the snowstorm elicits a chorus of oohs and aahhs . If you haven’t seen it in awhile, perhaps it’s time.
THE LOCATION: The Old Globe Theatre, through December 23.
RUNNING TIME : 70 min.
AWAY IN A GOSPEL MANGER
THE SHOW: Black Nativity, a gospel song-play written in 1961 by Langston Hughes, the poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance
THE SCOOP: Warm, heartfelt singing
THE STORY/BACKSTORY, THE PLAYERS AND PRODUCTION: The versatile Hughes combined his passion for words, music, poetry, gospel and dance in this church service cum drama. Hughes was known for disregarding classical forms in favor of the rhythms of blues and jazz and the dialect of everyday black American speech, all of which is represented here. The scene opens and closes in a church (Todd Crittendon’s colorful, stained glass design). First, it’s a congregation and preacher’s sermon. At the end, the company becomes a gospel choir. And in the middle, they act out the story of the birth of Jesus, from the African American perspective. There were sound mix, mic and balance problems the night I was there. But the singing was superb. The songs range from carols (“Do You Hear What I Hear,” “O Holy Night”) to classics (“Joy to the World,” “Go Tell it on the Mountain”) to testifyin’ (“How I Got Over,” “Changed”). Though almost everyone gets a solo turn, under the straightforward, no-nonsense direction of Common Ground Theatre’s artistic director, Floyd Gaffney, the most potent numbers come from Deborah Terrell (“Sweet Little Jesus Boy,” “We Shall Behold Him”) and Dejahn Blevins (“Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus”). The acting in the cast of 15is variable, but some of the speaking voices (e.g., Eryck Suttles as Narrator) are marvelous. And the spirited, spiritual dance numbers by the lithe and agile Elizabeth Bronner are outstanding (movement is credited to Gaffney, who started out as a dancer himself). Bronner is absolutely beatific as Mary, beholding her baby with a look of unalloyed joy. The costumes (Joan Wong) are vibrant for the church scenes and aptly flamboyant for the three kings. The accompaniment (music director Carolyn Cherry on keyboard, Charles Ray on piano, Rev. Michael Johnson on bass and Leon Thompson on drums) sometimes became a bit overmiked and over-enthusiastic, and overpowered the singers. But it’s the voices that underscore the story, the community and the faith. And we can all say hallelujah to that.
THE LOCATION : Lyceum Space, through December 18
SCROOGE MEETS THE GRINCH
THE SHOW: Festival of Christmas, a Lamb’s Players Theatre perennial, revisited and revised by playwright/director Kerry Meads
THE SCOOP: Weak play, beautifully designed, acted and sung
THE STORY, THE PLAYERS, THE PRODUCTION : Meads set this holiday drama, a reworking of one of her earlier scripts (which seemed to change names several times, and wound up having none listed in the program) in St. Louis , 1928. The story is quite “ Grinchy .” In the well-to-do Walters family, the crusty, pedantic patriarch (is it relevant that he’s an Anglophile?) wants to do away with Christmas, which has become too commercialized and too far removed from its religious underpinnings. But he’s brought around to re-connect with the true spirit of Christmas by an endearing and precocious little girl (irresistible Elizabeth Morse) who takes his hand, leans her head on his shoulder and melts his heart. Coursing through the piece – read, recited and referred to repeatedly— is Dickens’ “Christmas Carol,” and everyone ultimately learns the lessons of Christmas. There are some delightful characters – especially the sarcastic maid, played to the hilt in a scene-stealing turn by KB. Mercer, but there are also some McGuffins (you know, red herrings that add nothing to the story). There’s that flapper girlfriend of the son who’s supposed to be in a music conservatory but is playing in jazz clubs and speakeasies in Chicago instead. That does give Cris O’Bryon a chance to tickle the ivories, including an inventive “Guess the Carol” game in the second act, during which he delightfully cloaks the holiday tunes in jazzy and classical garb. The whole spinster subplot of Sandy Campbell’s character goes nowhere and the lame vaudeville shenanigans of the peripatetic uncle (Jon Lorenz) fall flat and make no particular sense, either. But David Cochran Heath does his gruff guy-with-the-soft-heart bit excellently, Sandy Blue is lovely and sexy as the unnecessary Lily Le Mer (the whole French name-thing comes out of nowhere) and the kids are adorable and hugely talented (Allie Trimm , Daniel Batchman , and especially the little 9 year-olds, Ian Brininstool and Elizabeth Morse). The Lamb’s Players have a gift for developing young talent, and the kids’ solemn bell-ringing number is wonderful. Mike Buckley’s set is gorgeous – a wealthy home with a marble staircase, etched windows, huge arches and elegant, opulent furnishings. Jeanne Reith’s knockout costumes are equally sumptuous – stunning outfits for the women and big, baggy, striped or checked suits for the men, with lovely velvet dresses and cute period PJs for the little girls. The play is flawed, but the singing (musical direction by G. Scott Lacy) and production are flawless.
THE LOCATION: Lamb’s Players Theatre, through December 29.
THE SHOW: Pete ‘n’ Keely , a musical revue ‘booked by James Hindman ,’ with musical arrangements by Patrick S. Brady. Originally produced Off Broadway in 2000, the show features new songs and standards in inventive renditions
THE SCOOP: Silly setup, but a spectacular showcase for two megawatt musical/comic talents
THE STORY, PLAYERS AND PRODUCTION: Remember Steve and Eydie ? ( that would be Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé ). Well, maybe you’re too young to remember them, but they set the standard for vocal hijinks and a teasing interaction during songs, which was co-opted by Sonny and Cher and even, at times, the Captain and Tenille . The duo had the lounge sound, but extremely rangy voices and playful, inventive arrangements, with lots of comic banter wrapped within. Enter Pete and Keely , two formerly extremely popular lounge lizards, now divorced, who re-connect (or not) on a TV reunion special intended to reinvigorate their separately sagging careers. The plot is goofily predictable, but the singing and repartee are great fun. As staged, directed and choreographed by Brian Wells and David Brannen (the Starlight team that brought Route 66 to Ramona last season), the pace is nimble, and the teasing, sarcasm and biting wit are relentlessly amusing. As the sleazy womanizer Pete, Randall Dodge is a hoot; this year, he’s really made a cottage industry out of the mugging, winking jerk (cf. Gaston in Beauty and the Beast and The Pirate King in Pirates of Penzance, both at Moonlight last summer), but he’s so damn good at it. I’d still like to see him expand his range of characters. He has an amazing range of voice – from rich baritone to crystal-clear falsetto. As his sidekick, sometime partner in crime, and jealous ex-wife, Kristen Mengelkoch is funny as a blonde and just plain funny. Dodge’s voice is a little stronger than hers, but she can alto-growl and hit some stratospheric soprano notes as well. The recent SDSU MFA (musical theater) grad is fast becoming a local musical comedy fixture, and she grows with every role. Together, they’re very entertaining company. Barely credited, but quite amusing in their own rights, are the ‘ensemble’ of Aaron Marcotte and Nikki McCabe. Wells and Brannen give them all lots of delicious stage business and the players make it all seem effortless. The costumes (Carlotta Malone) are appropriately seedy, the huge onstage caricatures (Daniel Grodecki ) are clever (his is better than hers) and the whole evening, though light and frothy as a soap bubble, just floats amusingly by.
THE LOCATION : Ramona Mainstage Theatre, through January 22. www.ramonatheatre.com
LOCAL GOINGS-ON …..
… Two more opportunities to see the final performances in St. Cecilia’s Playhouse, before it’s destroyed to make room for condos. Sledgehammer is moving out after 10 years, but not before acting artistic director Scott Feldsher stages A/Wake: a De-Installation with Choir and Soloists. Each night, a little bit more of the theater will be dismantled, and the whole event will culminate with a “burial” and wake/party. Be there for the rituals, surprise guests and original music (by Pea Hicks Tim Root, Francis Thumm and Jim Mooney). December 7-10.
…Back for one night; this time, hopefully, you won’t miss it! Monique Gaffney’s heart-stopping performance in I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda. This is the short, moving story of the hesitant friendship between a white Londoner (a heartfelt performance by Dale Morris ) and the titular war-scarred young lady. It’s an eye-opener and a tear-jerker. An Absolute must-see. December 12, 13, 14 at 6th @ Penn Theatre.
… The Poor Players readings of: the San Diego premiere of Dakin Matthews’ adaptation of King Henry VI Parts 1-3 (continuing on Monday, December 12 at 7pm at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Pt. Loma) and King Richard III (Monday, December 19, 7pm at North Coast Repertory Theatre), featuring Jonathan McMurtry and Richard Baird (probably his last San Diego performance before he departs for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival). $10 donation. Reserve at email@example.com or 619-255-1401.
OTHER HOLIDAY HAPPENINGS :
… La Pastorela Noel, the latest edition of Max Branscomb’s holiday perennial that tells the story of the birth of Jesus from the perspective of the shepherds, opens December 8 on the Cassius Carter Centre Stage. Once again, Máscara Mágica’s Bill Virchis directs, and there will be all manner of topical references. Will Dick Murphy and Duke Cunningham make it in this year?
…Speaking of the ‘20s (weren’t we?) , Kirsten Brandt is helming this year’s Christmas Carol at the San Diego Rep, adapted, as always, by Doug Jacobs. This one boasts ragtime, swing and bebop tunes (arrangements and original music by Steve Gunderson). The production concept and design are by David Lee Cuthbert. At the Lyceum through December 24.
.. Crumpet is back! That nasty little Macy’s elf, recalling his Santaland Diaries, is brought to us once again by Cygnet Theatre, and stars the irresistible Dennis Scott. Based on David Sedaris’ beloved NPR commentary, this show is the perfect antidote to holiday treacle. Through December 23. Note that the spectacular production of The Little Foxes still continues at Cygnet through December 18.
… New Village Arts presents an exclusive reading of Conor McPherson’s Dublin Carol, featuring Ron Choularton , Fran Gercke and Kristianne Kurner . Hors d’oeuvres and dancing ( ZannaJazz ) precede the production, and dessert/Irish tea follows, served by some of NVA’s favorite actors: JoAnne Glover, Brandon Walker, Grace Delaney, Jessica John , Jack Missett, Dana Case, Sandra Ellis-Troy and Pat Moran. Thursday, December 15, 6:30-10:30pm. $50; 760-433-3245.
…The Gospel Messiah, an adaptation of Georg Fredric Handel’s masterwork and a spinoff of Quncy Jones’ “Soulful Celebration, ” will be presented by the San Diego Symphony and Church Choir Conference Chorale, directed by Calvin Manson, with musical direction by Dr. Rose Buchanan. December 17 (7:30pm) at Otay Ranch High School and Sunday, December 18 at Copley Symphony Hall. 619-235-0804; www.sandiegosymphony.org
…Premiere Productions is presenting its 10th annual Christmas Theater Festival in Vista ’s Avo Playhouse. The Festival features three productions: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, A Christmas Story and The Year Without a Santa Clause. On one night during each production, (December 14, 15, 16), FREE TICKETS will be provided to any family of four, provided they bring a new, unwrapped toy to be donated to Toys for Tots. www.premiereforkids.com
…As part of its production of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the Old Globe is hosting Fiesta de Familia on Friday, December 16. it’s a pre-show family party, 6:00-7:15 on the Globe Plaza . Kid-friendly activities will include a visit from the Grinch, face painting, a piñata, music, food and more. $10pp. A nice beginning to a theater evening (both the Grinch and the Pastorela start at 7:30).
Grab a kid and go; or go by yourself. It’s 70 minutes of feel-like-a-kid-again delight. A new green meanie (Leo Daignault ) reportedly bares the dark .underbelly of Youknowho . Through December 31. Note, too, that the Globe
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ (Critic’s Picks);
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
How the Grinch Stole Christmas” – a new, more sarcastic Grinch, a great little Cindy-Lou Who, and a still-wonderful ensemble that makes children swoon
At the Old Globe Theatre, through December 23.
“Festival of Christmas’ – set in 1928, this Kerry Meads creation gives the “Christmas Carol ” a jazzy twist; beautifully designed, well acted and sung
At Lamb’s Players Theatre, through December 29.
“Black Nativity” – A lovely, heartfelt telling of the birth of Jesus, from a black (gospel) perspective
Common Ground Theatre at the Lyceum Space, through December 18.
“Pete ‘n’ Keely – A funny, silly revue with knockout performances by Randall Dodge and Kristen Mengelkoch
At the Ramona Mainstage Theatre, through January 22.
“The Sum of Us ” – A lovely, heartfelt production of a flawed but fascinating play
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through December 21.
“The Little Foxes” – deliciously vicious play, stunning production; beautifully designed, directed, lit and acted – by a killer cast.
At Cygnet Theatre, through December 18.
“Too Old for the Chorus, But Not Too Old To Be a Star” – if you haven’t had your fill of menopausal musicals, this is great for a date (the guys remind us it’s called MENopause ). Excellent performances , some cute/clever bits and songs.
At The Theatre in Old Town , EXTENDED through March 30 – and maybe beyond.
Only 15 more shopping days till YouKnowhat (and Hannukah’s coming, too). Fill those stockings (and dreidels ) with theater tix!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.