Happy holidays! 'Tis the season once again for Santa, menorahs, ugly sweaters and obligatory office parties. Three Long Beach theatre companies are also bringing us the latest installments of their traditional December offerings.
The Garage Theatre's annual family-friendly holiday melodrama, now in its 12th year, is Rod McGirdlebutt Strikes Back, or The Sun Sets on the Cyclone Racer One Last Time. This new chapter in the ongoing saga of a heroic roller coaster operator fighting the villainous Ian Sidious for control of the since-shuttered Pike boardwalk is set in 1956. Combining Long Beach nostalgia with references to modern cultural touchpoints like the Star Wars and Back to the Future films proves to be a winning formula. Mickey Mouse, Elvis Presley and Ronald Reagan also make appearances but they aren't the inspiring figures here that their fans are accustomed to.
Sidious (played by Joe Howells in most performances but by Craig Johnson a couple of times) is once again out to take over the Pike. This time around he has the help of a time machine developed by the equally sinister Dr. Lucifer Prince (Paul Knox, who also does a terrific Joe Cocker impersonation). In addition to McGirdlebutt (endearingly played by Rob Young), those intent on foiling the pair include reporter Dixie Troobaloo (a somewhat underused Jami McCoy), imprisoned whistleblower Ging Pao (Sally Nguyen), the dimwitted Jim Joe Bob Louie the 4th (Matthew Vincent Julian) and an alligator named Alice (a charming Jacqueline Jacobs), who happened to study law at Yale.
Jamie Sweet, who wrote and directed the production, fills it with "smoke, lasers, flying objects and guffaws," to quote the program cover. Although it could be trimmed by a good half hour to better accommodate their attention spans, kids will likely enjoy the overall silliness and interactive nature of the show. Audience members are instructed in how to cheer or hiss its various heroes and villains, and are also provided generous quantities of stuffed felt tomatoes and fake flowers with which to shower Sidious, Prince or Dixie. While there actually isn't any Christmas content in Rod McGirdlebutt Strikes Back aside from some cool red and green laser lights, the show can still serve as a holiday treat for the whole family.
Somberton Senior Residence Presents The Nutcracker, now in its fourth year at the Found Theatre through January 17th, is more adult-leaning but more specifically Christmas-oriented. Set in a retirement home chock-full of (mostly) happily demented oldsters, it is also an interactive affair. Attendees are welcomed to each performance as new residents and given little cups of candy "medication" and/or nuts. One audience member at the matinee I attended was even ordered to wear a hospital gown.
Presided over by the strict Nurse Jessica (Joyce Hackett), resident activities include playing Bingo, watching Jeopardy and, during this time of year, participating in their annual holiday show for family members. Kevin Gillespie (played by stage and film vet Derek Long) is the director recruited to stage the event and he quickly finds himself flummoxed. Wrangling a cast that includes a woman who thinks she is Judy Garland, a flamboyantly gay former dancer and a man confined to a wheelchair would try anyone's patience.
In the end, though, Gillespie pulls it off with a scaled-down but still impressive Nutcracker performance complete with traditional growing Christmas tree. Kudos to the Found production's director-choreographer Lauren Nave and her cast, most of whom doubled as the production's set and costume designers, for their endlessly clever work here. I've seen many productions of The Nutcracker over the years, most of them interchangeable. I won't soon forget this uniquely hilarious version presented by the Somberton Seniors.
Each December brings hundreds, possibly thousands, of stage adaptations around the world of A Christmas Carol. Since its publication in 1843, Charles Dickens' yuletide tale of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge's spiritual and moral conversion has been told in traditional as well as more contemporary ways. One of the most innovative and entertaining interpretations I've seen was a circus-set version that Long Beach's ICT presented for several years.
Long Beach Playhouse's 4th annual production of A Christmas Carol is playing in their Mainstage theater through December 20th. Phie (shortened from Sophie) Mura, a frequent Playhouse cast member, is making her Mainstage directorial debut. As she notes in the program, "This story has been told, again and again ever since (its initial publication). It has an undeniable link to the human heart and spirit that we cannot seem to shake, nor do we want to." Very true indeed.
The character of Scrooge needs no introduction, as his name has become synonymous over the last century and a half with greed and a callous disregard for his fellow human beings. He receives a forced lesson in compassion on Christmas Eve courtesy of the spirit of his deceased former partner, Jacob Marley. Plus the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, of course.
An interesting but unnecessary conceit of this otherwise straightforward telling, adapted from Dickens by Mura and Gregory Cohen, is the addition of a number of other ghosts. In fact (mild spoiler alert), all the actors in its play-within-a-play format turn out to be ectoplasmic. However, only one of the spirits is briefly scary enough for parents of young children to be mildly concerned. The production is fine family fare complete with music, dance and a puppet or two. Kids will also enjoy another of Mura's unusual directorial choices: having the actors portray such non-human elements as a coat stand, the fire in Scrooge's fireplaces and even the curtains around his bed.
Critical to the success of any stage, film or TV version of A Christmas Carol is the actor cast as Scrooge. For every Alastair Sim, George C. Scott or Michael Caine who has played the role there is a Henry Winkler, Kelsey Grammer and Jim Carrey. Thankfully, Gregory Cohen excels at the Playhouse. His is a somewhat livelier, funnier take on the curmudgeonly character than most but Cohen makes Scrooge's gradual change of heart palpable. He and Rick Reischman, who plays Scrooge's ever-optimistic nephew Fred, also jointly provide a lovely commendation of Scrooge's late, beloved sister in the play's most moving moment.
Other performances deserving of mention are Steve Shane's sympathetic Marley, Ashley J. Woods as Belle and young Carmel Artstein as Tiny Tim and other children's roles. Talented actor-dancer Leigh Hayes makes a more youthful (not to mention male) Ghost of Christmas Past than normally presented, while Gary Douglas and Reischman serve well respectively as the Ghosts of Christmas Present and Future.
Despite its undead cast of characters, A Christmas Carol at Long Beach Playhouse will be a lively addition to one's holiday celebrations.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.