Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN
Thursday, December 24, 2009
Decking the Halls
THE SHOW: “Christmas Stars, ” the newest installment of Lamb’s Players Theatre’s ‘Festival of Christmas’
You’d definitely have to call it a tradition. For 31 years, Lamb’s Players Theatre has presented a Festival of Christmas. Just about all the scripts have been written by associate artistic director Kerry Meads. This year, she’s premiering her 14th Christmas play (she writes a new one every other year or so). They’re all set in the holiday season, in one place or another – frequently, cold climes, since the protagonists are, more often than not, trapped by a snowstorm. Every time, she has to come up with a way a bunch of disparate people will find themselves together on Christmas eve , so they can sing carols old and new. One of the greatest joys of these productions is the singing; the arrangements and harmonies are always imaginative, and excellently executed.
This year, the time is modern (“Two Thousand and Now”) and the place is the Penney Lane recording studio, on “the edge of town,” tucked inconveniently under the railroad tracks. The owners of the sinking business are the writing duo, Martin Penney and Christian Lane and (Leonard Patton and Jon Lorenz, who wrote and/or arranged most of the songs). As a last-ditch effort to save their business, they’ve advertised (in wacky ‘70s gear, promoting ‘70s prices) for folks to come in and record their own CD. So that’s how some of the people are enticed in.
As a reflection of today’s tough times, everyone is in some distress: one got laid off, another’s mate is deployed overseas; one’s a struggling single mom; and there’s a lonely widow and widower. As in past productions, there’s a precocious young person (outstanding, self-possessed Lucia Vecchio ) and a mysterious character who spouts words of wisdom. He wafts through the proceedings, sitting in for the playing and singing, somehow seeming to be involved with just about everyone getting just about everything they want at the end. This time, the magical catalyst is a homeless guy (warmly and effectively played by Nathan Peirson ). Other characters have names like Faith and Grace.
The talent level is high in the 11-member ensemble, many of whom are Lamb’s regulars/associate artists, and almost all of whom are accomplished musicians (guitar, piano, drums). The performances are credible (Meads directs as well), though there is a bit of over-acting at times. The singing is sublime throughout, even if the carols selected are more religious than generic/seasonal.
The problem is, it’s all rather downbeat (including many of the songs); there isn’t much joy here, even at the supposedly satisfying conclusion. With so many stories and problems, it’s hard to connect with, or care for, anyone. The play may be timely and topical, but it runs too long, the characters feel less than fully developed, and the mood is generally gloomy throughout.
Mike Buckley’s attractive, wood-paneled, multi-level set has snow piled convincingly outdoors and a comfortable feel inside. The costumes (Jeanne Reith) and lighting (Rachael Campbell) serve the production well. The sound design (Patrick Duffy) features an ear-splitting commuter train that barrels through fairly frequently (very realistic, and the lighting is great for this part, but the train conceit wears out its welcome over the course of the evening). This play may not be the most upbeat, heartening or touching of the lot, but it deftly and valiantly carries on a long-held holiday tradition.
THE LOCATION: Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Ave. Coronado . ( 619) 437-0600 ; www.lambsplayers.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $22-58. Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m , Saturday at 4 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. through December 27.
NOTE : Lamb’s Players Theatre also continues its beautiful, festive, 15-year “American Christmas” tradition at the Hotel Del Coronado, always setting the piece a century ago; so this year’s production brings you back to 1909 (through 12/27).
You’ll Put Your Eye Out!
THE SHOW: “A Christmas Story,” based on the 1983 movie classic, presented by San Diego Junior Theatre
Jean Shepherd was really something. Besides being a beloved radio and TV personality, he was a terrific writer and raconteur. His books gave us clever lines like the novel title, “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.” His first feature film (written at age 62) was “A Christmas Story,” a timeless favorite. But Shepherd left an even greater legacy than all that. He was the inspiration for the DJ character in Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” His lifestyle inspired the iconoclast (played by Jason Robards ) in “A Thousand Clowns.” His on air diatribes were the inspiration for Peter Finch’s famous rants in “Network.” And of course, his childhood adventures gave rise to the semi-autobiographical ‘ Ralphie ’ character that coursed through his writings and formed the basis of “A Christmas Story,” for which Shepherd wrote the screenplay (with Leigh Brown and Bob Clark).
It’s a sweetly nostalgic tale of a kid in 1940 Hohman , Indiana , who’ll do anything to get what he wants for Christmas: an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model BB rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time.” Everyone – including Santa! – tells him the same thing (All together now: “You’ll shoot your eye out!”) But Ralphie is relentless, all the while battling the school bully, writing a school essay on the topic of Christmas presents, scheming to convince his parents, and for some unknown reason (except Boys will be Boys), watching while his friend accepts triple-dog-dared to stick his tongue onto an icy flagpole. On that subject, Shepherd’s influence also endures. Last week, the Idaho Statesman reported that a 10 year-old Boise boy got his tongue stuck to a metal pole and had to be rescued by 911 firefighters ( fyi , they poured a glass of warm water on the pole to free his tongue, which bled only slightly).
So now, along comes San Diego Junior Theatre, to give their own spin to the story, presenting a play based on the movie, adapted in 2000 by Philip Grecian, who’s also written stage adaptations of “Dracula,” “Frankenstein” and “The Velveteen Rabbit.”
All the elements of the story were there, and the kids did a wonderful job. The events were narrated by a staid, pipe-smoking older Ralph (17 year-old Kiefer Shackelford, very good), who looks out for young Ralphie (excellent, 13 year-old Mark Steitz , whose bio boasts eight prior shows with Junior Theatre, and 15 shows altogether so far). As The Old Man, Jordan Bunshaft, 17, showed a good sense of comedy, if he’d only tone down the yelling. Marianne Zumberge was solid as Mother. Eight year-old Paul Steitz was hilarious as bundled-up kid brother Randy, and as the comical Flick and Schwartz, Scott Roberts and Darian Spencer were great. Madeline Ottilie was delightful as Esther Jane, Ralphie’s little ‘love interest.’ The direction (Desha Crownover) was imaginative and though the skills, like the ages, varied widely, the sum total was warm, satisfying holiday fun. Production closed.
NEWS AND VIEWS
… Steering the Compass in another direction: New name, new managers, new direction. Compass Theatre (formerly 6th @ Penn) is changing hands again. After nine years of producing plays and festivals, acting, directing and renting the space to a wide range of fledgling and established (but homeless) companies, Dale Morris is moving on, to focus his attention on acting, writing and other pursuits (including his upcoming marriage); he’s not ruling out “a new, bigger theater space.” Come February, the risk-taking, five-year-old, perennially peripatetic ion theatre, co-founded by Claudio Raygoza and Glenn Paris , will be taking over – and renaming – the 49-seat space. Morris reflected on “nine wonderful, grueling, exciting, frustrating, creative, disappointing, thrilling, disastrous, mountain-top, pit-dwelling, educational, brain-numbing, friend-making, friend-losing, back-breaking, tux-wearing, toilet-cleaning, award-winning, money-losing years.” “Been a blast,” he concludes. As for ion, Paris says: “Expect us to think even more out of the box than ever before. In this hip new environment, ion may find itself hosting theater one night, spoken word the next; music, film series and more.” Change is the mother of invention.
…The Singing Sheik: Tony and Grammy Award-winner Duncan Sheik will perform at the Old Globe in an exclusive, one-night concert, with members of his touring band. The composer of the knockout musical, “Spring Awakening,” will be in town for the world premiere of his latest musical, “Whisper House.” He’ll perform songs from the new show, as well as his acclaimed albums. Sheik won two Tonys , as composer and arranger of “Spring Awakening,” which was named Best Musical in 2007. Proceeds from the local performance will benefit the Globe’s education activities. Tickets for “Duncan Sheik in Concert” can by purchased at (619) 23-GLOBE or www.TheOldGlobe.org.
… Singing Lambs: Lamb’s Players Theatre, in its 31st year of holiday plays with songs, has just released a new seasonal CD, “Sounds of Festival of Christmas: 2007-2009.” Produced by Jon Lorenz and Leonard Patton, it’s an outstanding compilation of the best musical offerings of the past three years, featuring a mix of new songs and imaginative arrangements of old standards. Every track has exciting elements, both vocal and instrumental. Some of my faves are “The Best Part of Christmas (is Lovin ’ You),” with music and lyrics by Lorenz; “Christmas on My Mind,” music and lyrics by Patton; and “Christmas, This Time,” with music and lyrics by Nick Spear; and for fun, Spear’s “Cowboy Christmas” and “God Rest Ye Reggae Gentlemen,” arranged by Patton and Rik Ogden. A great late gift – for yourself or someone else – it’s available for $17 at the LPT box office, (619) 437-0600, or online at lambsplayers.org, where you can get a preview/listen to every cut.
… Making School More Dramatic: The California Center for the Arts, Escondido continues its Teacher Workshop series with “ Using Drama to Teach History-Social Science .” Instructors of grades 3-8 will learn drama techniques, including pantomime and tableaux, to bring history to life in the classroom. The “lively, get-you-out-of-your-seat” workshop will be presented on January 14, 4-5:30 p.m., by actor/instructor/director Radhika Rao , Ph.D. All workshops are FREE to K-8 educators; no prior experience required. Info/ rsvp : (760) 839-4173; www.artcenter.org.
… Where there’s smoke…: It wafted all the way to the top. After a three-year battle, the Colorado Supreme Court recently ruled (in a 6-1 decision) that the state’s indoor smoking ban applies to theaters. Therefore, no more actor lightups onstage (“public health trumps actors’ freedom of expression”). And that includes alternatives to tobacco, such as cloves, tea leaves or anything else. This is the first state court ruling of its kind; 24 states have indoor smoking bans, and 12 of those have exemptions for theatrical performances. The court claimed there were acceptable “alternatives to smoking onstage.” In a 20-page dissent, Justice Gregory Hobbs said that “characters and plots would lack depth and expressive force without the hovering smoke on stage, the poignant exhale of a puff of smoke, and even the ability or inability to smoke.” He mentioned Mrs. Robinson’s strategic, sexy exhale in the stage version of “The Graduate” (not such a great example; it made a lousy play). But, still… try doing noir without smoke. Wait! What about smoke machine effects? Is that still okay? No word on that in any of the newspaper reports. Theaters in Colorado have not ruled out taking their argument to the very top: the Supremes (Court, that is).
… Patté Tix : Tickets are going fast for The 13th Annual Patté Awards for Theater Excellence, a gala community celebration that honors the Best of the Best of local theatermakers. Monday, January 18, 2010. Get in on the action at www.thepattefoundation.org.
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” – heart-rending, heartbreaking and full of heart (and music!)
Cygnet Theatre, extended through 12/31
Read Review at: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2009-12-16/things-to-do/theater-things-to-do/i-do-i-do-santaland-diaries-christmas-carol-its-a-wonderful-life-theater-reviews-news
“A Christmas Carol” – brisk but bracing
North Coast Repertory Theatre, through 12/27
“Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas” – great fun for the whole family
Old Globe Theatre, through 12/27
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic.
To read any of her prior reviews, type ‘Pat Launer’ into the SDNN Search box.