Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Though not in actuality an operational bar, you would never know it from the attention to detail lavished on Benjamin Olsen's beautifully designed set, including the view through the windowpanes out to the street, where snow is blowing about, giving a sense of urgency to those who pass through its portals into the warmth of The Local. Christmas at the Local is an opportunity to sit in a corner booth and watch longtime friends, with their musical instruments in hand, gather together to play and sing melodies that make one nostalgic for a holiday season spent in their good company, even if one never has had that experience before. It draws on something that feels elemental, a sentiment for a community that may never have been realized in our lives.
The Local is the domain of its proprietor, played by Joy Dolo, radiating hospitality as she alternates between tending the bar and wiping down the counters, and joining in the festive song and storytelling. The storytelling is the centerpiece of the show, with Dolo's spirited recitation of Dylan Thomas' "A Child's Christmas in Wales," the friends gathered at The Local playing an evocative musical accompaniment composed by Cerys Matthews and Mason Neely in 2014. At various junctures, some of the others at the gathering contribute to the recitation, heartfelt remembrances of eccentric aunts and overstuffed uncles, shimmering snowscapes and simmering puddings, children bravely facing the dark-night frights conjured up by their imaginations. There are pauses as well, to give "the proprietor" time to tend to her duties, while the others assembled perform traditional Welsh songs, each aglow with vigor and warmth.
Among those assembled at The Local is Jason Hansen, a superb piano player who also pitches in with guitar and mandolin. He is music director for the show, and also did the orchestrations and arrangements. The others at the party are all stellar vocalists, who, when they aren't singing, are playing an instrument. Phinehas Bynum plays keyboards, Spencer Chandler is on accordion, Bradley Greenwald on baritone horn to match his beautiful baritone voice, Elizabeth Reese plays flute and saxophone, Matt Riehle is on guitar, mandolin and percussion, and Quinn Shadko plays violin. I would be hard pressed to single any of them out, all are wonderful.
Co-directors Larissa Kokernot and Peter Rothstein establish a wholly authentic atmosphere of friends gathered to share their musical gifts and sentimental longings, warming one another up on a cold night and welcoming the onset of the holidays with collective fellowship and artistry. There are some lighthearted dance steps and jaunty movement, though nothing that could be called full-out dance. There is never a moment that feels theatrical, as if reality is put on pause and the cast decide to put on a show.
Without having to speak to one another (except in words whispered from one to another, unheard by the audience), this group of friends are so attuned to one another, they know when to join in, when to sit out, and when to effortlessly harmonize. After an informal opening, house lights on, during which the various participants are blown in from the outdoors, singly or in pairs, the program congeals around the first song, Paul Simon's "Getting Ready for Christmas Day," which combines the anticipation of great joy with a wink of mischief–the perfect note to kick thinks off. Among the other songs that precede the telling of "A Child's Christmas in Wales," "River" by Joni Mitchell, and "In the Bleak Midwinter," a poem by Christine Rosetti set to the music of Gustav Holst, are all movingly rendered. The Pogues' "Fairytale of New York" is a sweet blend of cynicism and sentimentality, while "Christmas at the Ale House," by the Irish Rovers, gets the tavern jumping.
The evening closes with a reading of the poem "The Longing for Amazing Peace," by Dr. Maya Angelou, which she read at the White House Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in 2005, at the invitation of President George W. Bush. The poem is set to music by Chastity Brown that winds together her blend of Americana, folk and soul sounds, and was composed especially for this production. With proprietor Joy Dolo again holding the center, the poem, written in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, expresses the hope of drawing together people from all faiths, all nations, to arrive at a true and lasting peace, even beyond the absence of war. Brown's music perfectly suits the text, delivered with clarity and a sense of purpose.
Beyond Olsen's terrific set, all other design elements are top notch, with Amber Brown's costumes seeming to match the personalities of the performers wearing them, comfortable, warm and with a bit of flair to acknowledge the approaching holidays. Abbee Warmboe's props provide the glassware and other accoutrements of a neighborhood bar steeped in tradition. Marcus Dilliard's lighting design adds to the burnished feel of the tavern and its growing warmth over the course of the evening.
Christmas at the Local offers a calming evening that invites us to slow down and enjoy the company of those around us, as the assembled friends on stage enjoy their shared music and camaraderie, and let the peace that is the essence of the holidays wash over us, rather than manically darting about in search of its meaning. The music conveys a love of community, while the texts move from affection for the past to hope for the future. It is a lovely and lovingly presented holiday show.
Christmas at the Local runs through January 1, 2023, at Theater Latté Da, Ritz Theater, 345 13th Avenue NE, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $35.00 - $76.00. Student and educator rush tickets, $15.00, subject to availability, one hour before curtain, two tickets per ID, cash only. 20% discount for military personnel and veterans (up to four tickets). Members of Actors' Equity Association (AEA), the Union of Professional Actors; the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC); and the Twin Cities Musicians Union - $20 with union member ID card, two tickets per member. Tickets for zip code 55413 neighborhood residents are available for $13.00 at the box office during regular business hours, cash only. For tickets and information, please call 612-339-3303 or visit theaterlatteda.com.
Featuring "A Child's Christmas in Wales" by Dylan Thomas, music composed by Cerys Matthews and Mason Neely "The Longing for Amazing Peace" by Maya Angelou, music by Chastity Brown; Additional music by Paul Simon; Allen Story, Anna Gordy Gaye and George Gordy; Shane MacGowan and Jem Finer; Joni Mitchell; the Irish Rovers; Gustav Holst and Christine Rosetti (lyrics), Thomas Oliphant (lyrics) and Sir Harold Boulton (lyrics); Directors: Larissa Kokernot and Peter Rothstein; Orchestrations, Arrangements and Music Direction: Jason Hansen; Scenic Design: Benjamin Olsen; Costume Design: Amber Brown; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Props Design: Abbee Warmboe; Dramaturg: Elissa Adams; Welsh Consultant: Hywel Roberts; Technical Director: Bethany Reinfeld; Production Stage Manager: Shelby Reddig; Assistant Stage Manager: Austin Schoenfelder.
Cast: Phinehas Bynum, Spencer Chandler, Joy Dolo, Bradley Greenwald, Jason Hansen, Elizabeth Reese, Matt Riehle, Quinn Shadko.