Saturday, December 3, 2016

Reverend's Reviews: Holiday Treats on Stage


'Tis the season for all manner of Scrooges, sprites and Santas to take over performance spaces across the country.  It wasn't so long ago that the only productions one could find this time of year were of The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol.  Today, though, there are so many adaptations of popular holiday-themed movies as well as original works that they all couldn't possibly fit into Santa's largest sack.

One that has been on Broadway and tour for several seasons now is Irving Berlin's White Christmas. It is now playing for one week only at Los Angeles' Pantages Theatre before moving on to other cities in the western US.  Two things become quickly apparent in this stage adaptation of the classic 1954 film.  One is that its post-World War II storyline is pretty darn dated, and book writers David Ives and Paul Blake seem to have had no interest in updating it in the slightest.  The second is that the musical really has nothing to do with Christmas aside from the opening number, "Happy Holiday," and the climactic title song with requisite decorated tree and snowfall.

The plot, for those somehow unfamiliar with the movie, involves a male song & dance team, Phil and Bob, who have become stars 10 years after serving in the Army together.  They cross paths with two singing sisters, Betty and Judy, who are en route to perform at a Vermont ski lodge over the Christmas holiday.  But there turns out to be one big problem: Vermont is having a heat wave and no snow is in the forecast, so the girls find their engagement cancelled in the absence of guests.

Leave it to Phil and Bob to come up with a plan to save the girls' engagement as well as the resort's bankruptcy-facing owner, who happens to have been their commanding officer during the war.  They recruit their fellow former soldiers to come to Vermont for Christmas with their families and enjoy a spectacular show, thereby raising enough money to bail everyone out.

White Christmas features plenty of retro-feeling flag waving, spirited tap dance numbers courtesy of director-choreographer Randy Skinner (his non-tap choreography is less impressive), and a cast that is so aggressively energetic they often threaten to go over the top.  This latter observation is especially true of Lorna Luft -- yes, Judy Garland's other daughter -- who overpowers with her Ethel Merman-esque turn in the role the late, great Mary Wickes played in the movie.  Carrie Robbins' costumes are colorful and serviceable enough but can't compare with Edith Head's eye-popping cinematic versions.

It is hard to imagine anyone under the age of 60 being blown away by this show despite its generation-bridging lineup of Berlin standards that also includes "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep," "Sisters," "Snow" and "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm."  Still, if its a holiday chestnut one is looking for then White Christmas is a good one to roast.

L. Frank Baum may be best remembered as the author of The Wizard of Oz and its many sequels, but he also offered his own fanciful take on a Yuletide legend.  The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, published in 1902, follows its title subject from birth to near-death and rebirth as the perennial face of Christmas gift-giving.

Local writer Jo McLachlan has adapted Baum's book for the stage and it is now having its premiere production courtesy of Long Beach Shakespeare Company.  The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus runs through December 11th at the Richard Goad Theatre in Long Beach.  As evidenced by the reactions of several children present at its opening night performance, this delightful play with music is a must-see for families and anyone else eager for an infusion of holiday cheer.

We meet the man who will become Santa as a newborn baby abandoned in the mysterious Burzee Forest (which is actually located in the land of Oz).  Adopted by one of the elves and christened "Claus," he grows up under the tutelage of other woodland creatures. Once the Forest King, Ak, takes Claus on a trip around the world, the young man decides to leave the forest and serve his fellow human beings with his developing skills as a toymaker.  However, Claus must first escape the clutches of the evil Awgwas who kidnap him.

McLachlan has done an impressive job of streamlining Baum's lengthy narrative into a kid-friendly 60 minutes.  The addition of a few songs (one features lyrics written by Baum set to music by Edmund Velasco) and dance numbers help hold children's attention.  For me, the best and funniest piece of Ramzi Jneid's choreography involves two reindeer: one is a professional ballerina (the lovely Ashley Wilkerson) while the other reindeer (Amy Paloma Welch) is decidedly, hilariously not as adept.  Dana Leach's colorful costumes and Tim Leach's assortment of clever special effects, including falling "snow" during the show's finale, catch the eye of youngsters and adults alike.

This production also benefits from an assortment of gorgeous projections that evoke the forest setting, complete with snow flurries.  Another more active projection accompanies Claus and Ak on their high-speed global journey.  Long Beach Shakespeare Company has often used such visuals during other performances I've attended but these are their best such effects to date.

Ultimately bringing the fantastical story to life are its great cast members.  In addition to the aforementioned Wilkerson and Paloma Welch, who play a variety of other roles, are Tate Howell as the younger Claus, Andy Kallok as Ak and the older Claus, and Leonardo Lerma as King Awgwa and other characters.  Two students at nearby Lakewood Christian School, Kate Dougherty and Giancarlo Roldan, round out the cast and are making their professional theatre debuts.

All children who attend will be invited to sit in the first row of the audience.  I sat in the second row on opening night so had not only a bird's eye view of the stage but of the youngsters present as well. The continuous expressions of joy and excitement on their faces were proof enough to me that The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus is a theatrical winner.  For tickets, visit or call 562-997-1494.  The company will also be presenting Orson Welles' radio adaptation of A Christmas Carol, as they do every year, the weekend of December 16th-18th.

Reverend's Ratings:
Irving Berlin's White Christmas: C+
The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus: A-

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.