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Seattle by Jonathan Frank


Inspecting Carol, Black Nativity, and
The Hoboken Chicken Emergency

'Tis the season where you can't turn around without spotting some reference to Charles Dickens' classic ghost story A Christmas Carol. From the Muppets and the Flintstones on TV to various theatrical adaptations that scatter the landscape, it seems that you can't throw a stone without striking a Tiny Tim smack in his noggin. This proliferation of Carols can turn even the most humanitarian among us into the worst of Scrooges. Luckily, a cure for Christmas Carol burnout is alive and well and being presented at Seattle Repertory Theatre again, the hysterical spoof Inspecting Carol.

Written a decade ago by then artistic director Daniel Sullivan (recent Tony winner for his direction of Proof), Inspecting Carol is a Christmas fusion of Waiting For Guffman and Gogol's The Inspector General, with a dash of Noises Off thrown in for good measure. The plot is simple: a third-rate small-town Equity company is mounting their twenty-somethingth production of their annual cash cow, A Christmas Carol. The cast is tired of it, as it has been done with the same actors for so long that Tiny Tim has entered puberty. The director/artistic director (Marianne Owen), managing director (Larry Paulson) and stage manager (the always delightful Barbara Dirickson) are keeping control by a slim margin when they discover that an inspector from the National Endowment of the Arts is going to drop by, an inspector whose judgement is all that stands between them getting a much needed grant or closing their doors for good. Enter an incompetent actor (R. Hamilton Wright) who gets mistaken for said inspector while hilarity ensues.

Inspecting Carol
David Silverman, Harry Jamieson and Jeannie Carson
The cast is excellent, many of whom are reprising their original roles. In addition to the aforementioned quartet, Biff McGuire and Jeannie Carson have returned as a hilarious Old School classically trained (and don't you forget it) couple. New additions are David Silverman as a jealous hypochondriac, G. Valmot Thomas as the token, poorly used and given to flashbacks black actor, Harry Jamieson as the not-so-Tiny Tim and Jeff Steitzer (who also directed) as a Scrooge who wants to use the part to illustrate the plight of the third world.

While some of the script is dated, especially in regards to the NEA (have there been no uproars there since Mapplethorpe and Karen Finley?), the situations, much of which were inspired by local theatrical goings-on, remain fresh and funny. The sets by Andrew Wood Boughton and costumes by Marcia Dixcy Jory greatly add to the ongoing hilarity and the direction by Jeff Steitzer is spot-on and brisk.

Inspecting Carol runs through December 30th at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. For more information visit www.seattlerep.org

During the second act of Black Nativity, returning for its fourth year at Intiman Theatre, Pastor Patrinell Wright jokingly quips, "Bet you didn't know you were at Intiman Interdenominational Church." And she has a point. While the line between religion and theatre (and vice versa) has always been razor thin at best, Black Nativity fuses the two into a joyful, largely powerful evening.

Black Nativity is a retelling of the Christmas story as told by Langston Hughes, one of the greatest poets America has produced. First performed in 1961, the first act tells of the birth of Jesus through poetry, dance and gospel music. Erricka S. Turner (Mary) and Bertram G. Johnson (Joseph) are absolutely breathtaking in their portrayal of a young couple in search of a hotel room. Their contribution to the story is told through dance and movement, which incorporates styles ranging from ballet to African folk to modern, with great resonance. Three readers, Cynthia Jones, Jimi Ray Malary and Reverend Dr. Samuel B. McKinney, tell the story through Langston's poems, which are beautiful in their simplicity and honest emotions. The choir, which includes members of the Total Experience Gospel Choir and The Black Nativity Choir, raises the roof and the soloists, especially Jimi Ray ("Sweet Little Jesus Boy") and Stephanie Scott-Hatley ("No Good Shepherd"), are phenomenal.

The second act is much more amorphous, being a church service officiated by two of Seattle's premier ministers of faith, Reverend Dr. Samuel B. McKinney and Pastor Patrinell Wright. Since gospel music needs audience participation and energy to be truly effective, perhaps the night I went was lacking on our end. That said, the second act outstays its welcome by a good twenty minutes as it lacks focus, being intent, it seems, on giving solo time to choir members rather than creating a tightly structured, fully effective piece. When the show is focused on lessons told by Reverend Dr. Samuel B. McKinney and Pastor Patrinell Wright, the stage fairly crackles with energy and importance. A writing by Langston Hughes about the need for the world to come together is especially thought-provoking and hard-hitting given recent events, and is perfectly delivered by Reverend McKinney. Stephanie Scott-Hatley brings the evening to its joyful climax with "Get Away Jordon" which, unfortunately, is followed by a number of songs that fail to raise the emotional bar and have no bearing on the proceedings (just what does "Wind Beneath My Wings," especially done ala Bette Midler, have to do with the Christmas story anyway?).

Overall, Black Nativity is a stirring (if overlong) reminder of the true story of Christmas. While I would personally prefer to see an expanded version of the first act, there is no denying the power and joy present in the second.

Black Nativity runs through December 23rd at Intiman Theatre. For more information, visit www.intiman.org

Perhaps the oddest concept for a holiday show is at the Seattle Children's Theatre: a love story between a 10-year-old boy and a 266-pound chicken in The Hoboken Chicken Emergency. First produced by SCT in 1988, The Hoboken Chicken Emergency is based on a children's novel by Daniel Pinkwater in which Arthur (Jason Collins) is sent to buy a turkey for Thanksgiving and returns with a 266-pound superchicken named Henrietta (Erica Bergham). His parents (Geoffrey Alm and Mara Hesed) are not amused and neither are the townspeople, who quickly panic at the sight of a chicken the size of a polar bear.

The Hoboken Chicken Emergency
Erica Berghan and Jason Collins
The show has a stellar cast with excellent support given by Tracy Coe, Allen Galli, John Gentry, Christopher Guilmet, Hugh Hastings and Felicia Vonshell Loud, all of whom play myriad parts. The script, music, and lyrics are by Chad Henry, best known for Angry Housewives, which was co-created and directed by Hoboken's director, Linda Hartzell. So given those elements, why does the show not quite gel, reducing my seven-year old companion to the first theatrical squirmings I have witnessed from him? Part of the problem is that the songs, while cute in a vintage '40s pastiche way, don't quite have the spark needed to make the show fully come to life. Most of the problem is that the show sags whenever Henrietta is not onstage, in part thanks to a spectacular performance by Erica Bergham, whose energy is sorely missed whenever she is off-stage. Mostly, however, the show just feels unfocused, with too much time spent on dream sequences and townspeople scenes, which diffuse rather than intensify the action.

The Hoboken Chicken Emergency runs through January 5th at the Seattle Children's Theatre. For more information visit www.sct.org


Photos: Chris Bennion




- Jonathan Frank



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