Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's recent review of Scrooge in Rouge
Every Christmas Story Ever Told ... is the brainchild of regional theatre professionals John K. Alvarez, Michael Carleton, and James Fitzgerald. It was first produced twenty years ago in Cape May, New Jersey, a historic seaside town that is abuzz in the summer but pretty quiet in the winter. That may seem an unlikely spot to give birth to a hugely popular Christmas show–it has been produced by 97 (and counting) professional theatre companies and had hundreds of community and school productions–but unlikely fits the profile of this delightful show to a tee.
It is unlikely that in the course of two hours and change an audience can be treated to How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer (the 1960s animated version with the voice of Burl Ives as the snowman/narrator), Frosty the Snowman (with Jimmy Durante as narrator), The Gift of the Magi, The Nutcracker, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and a brief encounter with A Christmas Story, with such random cultural icons as Keanu Reeves, Maggie Smith, and zombies lobbed into the fray. Dylan Thomas' "A Child's Christmas in Wales" makes an appearance, though after first being introduced as Bob Dylan's "A Child's Christmas in Whales." We also glide past Kwanza and snatches about the real St. Nicholas who lived in fourth century Turkey. (For a serious, in-depth look at his story, I commend to you Open Window Theatre's remount of their wonderful production, Nicholas.)
Between these segments we are treated to globe-trotting descriptions of holiday celebrations in different lands, from Iceland to Australia, all of which end up seeming a lot more perilous than our American practices. There's a re-creation of "Charlie Brown's Christmas," complete with a limbs-akimbo dance break, and a variation on the old "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Clause" editorial from the Baltimore Sun is given a data-driven analysis. A shout-out is goes to Kwanza and, oh yes, there is a holiday game show. The pièce dé resistance is a simultaneous enactment of both A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life, with the same actor–Elise Langer, who is terrific–adroitly pivoting between the roles of Carol's Ebenezer Scrooge and Wonderful Life's George Bailey. There are bits and pieces, references and allusions, to other holiday fare as well, but you get the idea.
Langer shares the stage with Charles Frasier and Madeline Rowe, and all are wonderful at jumping in and out of their cavalcade of roles. The whole thing is tipped off when Madeline (the actors all call one another by their actual first names throughout the show), draped with chains to portray Jacob Marley's ghost in A Christmas Carol, stage-whispers to Elise, dressed in black morning coat and top hat as she announces "Marley was dead," to state that she cannot bear to be in one more A Christmas Carol, a story everyone knows and has heard over and over ad nauseum. Elise argues that it is precisely because everyone knows the tale, and has heard it over and over, that it must be done–it is a holiday tradition! Madeline persists, and draws Charles to take her side, until, before you can say "All the Whos down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot," the threesome have set the Dickens piece aside in favor those other Christmas stories.
Madeline's character is a wide-eyed innocent determined to retain the magic of Christmas, in contrast to Elise's rational engagement with the holiday season, while Charles seizes the opportunities to ham it up playing the cornucopia of roles that come his way in the course of the show. Jason Ballweber directs the cast to create the feeling of a family, the disagreements among them feeling like that of squabbling but loving siblings. Things move quickly, with rapid costume changes (from Samantha Fromm Haddow's delightfully adaptable designs and at times outrageous designs) adding to the non-stop fun.
The set designed by Justin Hooper is a simple affair, non-specific enough to serve as a blank canvas for the array of stories that touch down upon it yet holding a few clever surprises in store. Shannon Elliott's lighting and Jeff Bailey's prop designs further contribute to the frolicsome atmosphere. Whether it is a costume, props, or combination of the two that enables Madeline Rowe to look all the world like one of those giant balloons aloft over Broadway in the Macy's parade, it is gloriously giddy work.
There were just a couple of children in the audience at the matinee performance I attended, but I declare that this show is a perfect family pleaser. Kids will love the spoofs of the beloved stories and customs they know, and it is a good opportunity to introduce them to some they may not have yet encountered. If time allows this season, I will happily return with a couple of my favorite youngsters in tow.
Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!)" has the makings of a holiday tradition all its own. It would be easy to imagine families returning to Yellow Tree year after year to relive the glee of galloping through their own store of precious Christmas memories. "Oh, what fun it is to ride," sings the gang in "Jingle Bells," and this show is a fun ride indeed, that will leave you "laughing all the way."
Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!) runs through December 29, 2023, at Yellow Tree Theatre, 320 5th Ave SE, Osseo MN. For information and tickets call 763-493-8733 or visit YellowTreeTheatre.com.
Playwrights: John K. Alvarez, Michael Carleton and James Fitzgerald; Director: Jason Ballweber; Technical Director and Set Design: Justin Hooper; Costume Designer: Samantha Fromm Haddow; Lighting Design: Shannon Elliott; Props Design: Brandt Roberts; Stage Manager: Rivka Kelly; Assistant Stage Managers: Constance Brevell, Samantha Smith; Production Manager: Brandon Raghu.
Cast: Charles Fraser. Elise Langer, Madeline Rowe