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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Christmas: in Story, in Panto, and in Wales; and Found

A line that sticks with me from vintage television echoes through my head today,

“Chatsworth, you’re a lazy boy.”

Well, not so much lazy and busy and tired while adjusting to a new routine and schedule. Not to mention that pinched nerve in my neck that presents cardiological symptoms and that has been a nuisance since 2009!

Either way, I’m behind in my reporting. Add procrastination, another of my championship sports to the mix, and “behind” turns into unconscionable delay.

Only one way to remedy it. Write. Write. Write. Rekindle those neurotic Chekhovian impulses of yesterday and catch the “$@*#*” up!

So here goes. A real blitz that covers weeks of territory and will be organized based on three categories — Still running, closed but subject to two cents, long gone but worthy of comment.

One thing I can tell you before beginning. Acting, in general, has been superb. No matter the play, or the character, production and portrayal have been at high levels that show the experience of sophistication of Philadelphia as a theater site.

 

IN PRODUCTION NOW:

 

childs-christmas-interior-2A CHILD’S CHRISTMAS IN WALES, Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio on 3, 9th and Walnut Streets, Philadelphia, through December 23 — Simple and personal are good. There are so many ways to present Dylan Thomas’s piece about one Christmas in his boyhood Welsh coastal town. You can act it all out as a fantasy, naturalistically, or a combination of both. You can turn into a creative collage as Lantern Theater did a few seasons back. Or you can take a cue from New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre and let Thomas’s lovely tale speak for itself, sometimes in direct but spirited narration, sometimes with the actor/narrators going into character or assuming an expression or posture to illustrate the point. At the Walnut’s Independence Studio, the Irish Rep approach worked brilliantly. Its artistic director, Charlotte Moore, also a fine actress, interpolated familiar and other lesser known Christmas songs in Thomas’s prose that has the ring and lushness of poetry. This gives the narrators, five of them, extra chances to entertain, and Scott Greer, Aaron Cromie, Maggie Lakis, Matthew Mastronardi, and Amanda Jill Robinson do not miss their bet. Each is a hearty, entertaining narrator that deftly infuses humor, pathos, irony, or facial commentary into the sections he or she is called upon to relate. Under Cromie’s direction, Greer, Robinson, and company build an atmosphere of warmth and nostalgia that blends well with the mulled cider the Walnut offers before the show begins and Scott Groh’s traditional and well-crafted set that is as lovely and beautifully appointed as it is perfect. The deep maroon curtains, the festive table liner, the Christmas ornaments the actors place at times, and all of Groh’s thoughtful trimmings take you to a hearth-heated home in a Wales of long ago. You feel snug while knowing there’s some draft. You see the uncles with their collars and pants buttons undone and imagine the aunties fussing over young Dylan and other tikes as they spend a holiday together over some home-cooked food and a little libation. Cromie and castmates invite you what feels like a family gathering. “A Child’s Christmas” was the first holiday show I saw, and it put me right in the mood for holly, ivy, conifers, and a more adult version of that cider. In this production, good storytelling and friendly relating to the audience make up for fanfare, As said, Thomas and the song Moore chose get to be the stars, and they carry with the evening grandly with Greer, Lakis, Robison, Mastronardi, and Cromie the quintessential conveyors of tidings that comfort and bring joy, be they a tale of childhood mischief or a sweet moment Dylan shares with his Mom. Grade: A

 

chriistmas-story-interior-meidaA CHRISTMAS STORY, Media Theatre, 104 E. State Street, Media, Pa., through January 8 — Jean Shepherd’s story about the Christmas he wanted a bee-bee gun is a favorite of mine since I read it in Shepherd’s anthology, “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. A movie turned the tale into a Christmas favorite. A musical by Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Joseph Robinette only enhances its popularity and durability as realistic nostalgia piece that evokes lots of everyday experiences and occurrences of children in the pre-technology age. Of course, the Red Ryder rifle Ralphie wants continues a boy’s tradition. What boy doesn’t want to shoot at something? Especially in the days before political correctness made guns as toys an anathema. Dann Dunn’s production for Media finds both the elegy and the humor in the Pasek-Paul-Robinette piece. Dunn goes more in for lampooning a time of meat loaf, mashed potatoes and cabbage eaten almost immediately after Dad came home from work. Patrick Ludt’s father and Jennie Eisenhower’s mother are often more characters than they are flesh-and-blood parents, but each is actor enough to let humanity shine through defense of a hideous lamp, and Eisenhower rightfully puts more sting than comedy in the scene when she washes Ralphie’s mouth with Lifebuoy soap, the one he likes least. At its best, “A Christmas Story” reminds us of a simpler time when we shared Christmas traditions, even one that has Raphie’s family meet their neighbors, the Schwartzes, at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas day, and Dunn preserves much of that. His choreography for this show is among his best. Ludt and Eisenhower acquit themselves well, as does Ben Pedersen as the hopeful Ralphie. The highlight of the evening is the rousing, really-from-a-different-show tap number Pasek and Paul provide for Ralphie’s margin-loving teacher, Miss Shields. Krissy Fraelich makes this into a bravura turn that jazzes up the Media atmosphere and rekindles one element current musical theater should include more often — the boffo dance number. Nods to Kelly Briggs as an affable narrator who knows how to blend the warm with the sardonic, Mark Marano as a caustic Santa Claus, and corps of talented children who bring energy and professional polish to their ensemble scenes. Oh, and three cheers to Nate Golden who has the best legs of anyone in the chorus, male or female. Grade: B

 

found-pht-interiorFOUND, Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad & Lombard Streets, Philadelphia, through December 11 — Thank the cast of “Found” for providing fun in a musical that has minimal substance and for, to a person, being able to nail a short take by giving the right tone to make a pithy one-liner comic, ironic, or sexy. It is the short takes and production numbers choreographed by Connor Gallagher that keeps you going in “Found,” short though it is. Random, unearthed notes, even the most philosophical, sarcastic, angry, or funny, intentionally or not, can only amuse for so long. A barrage of them gets to be old hat fast, and “Found” doesn’t have much new or interesting to present beyond the wittiest or naughtiest of the verbal detritus its characters discover on the streets, under windshield wipers, tucked into returned library books, or in mail sent to them by folks who know they’re interested in publishing lost messages in a magazine, on a web site, in a podcast, or on television programs all called “Found.” I couldn’t say the origin of the “Found” brand is uninteresting, but it’s not fascinating enough to hold one interest in a musical. Nor are the relationships “Found’s” founder, Davy Rothbart has with two women, one his original partner in launching “Found,” the other a producer who comes thisclose to getting “Found” to syndicated TV. Eli Bolin’s songs have a zesty lilt to them but the best are the ones for which Bolin underscored especially deep or sentimental letters with tunes. If energy were all, “Found” could be a hit, but as it stands now, co-author Lee Overtree’s production is more buoyant than good. It depends on the energy and likeability of the cast more than the material Overtree and Hunter Bell have crafted into a script with help from Rothbart and a group called The Story Pirates. I had a good time and was entertained, which is a lot and should be enough, but I always felt as if I was watching a show with more spark than substance or importance. Give actors F. Michael Haynie, Alysha Deslorieux, Christina Anthony, Juwan Crawley, Erika Henningsen, Anthony Call, Graham Stevens, Molly Pope, Sandy Rustin, and Orville Mendoza a lot of credit for pep and enthusiasm, but Bell and Overtree don’t endow “Found” with much depth. Perhaps if they imagined more of the scenes that led to or were motivated by Rothbart’s findings, “Found” would find a core. For now, the story that goes around the recovered discarded needs noise, the cast’s personality, and Gallagher’s dances to mask its general shallowness. Grade: C (show), B+ (production)

 

sleeping-beauty-interiorSLEEPING BEAUTY: A MUSCAL PANTO, People’s Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, Pa., through January 15 — The mayhem can be a little more focused and the story more involving even while admitting it is simplified for the benefit of the children this latest of People’s Light’ss Christmas pantos is designed to serve. The Grimmish fairy tale kingdom is transformed to Paoli Shoals, a town depressed by the collapse of a once-thriving recording industry, and Princess Aurora is a prep-school=dressed science geek who cares more for astronomy than the warp and woof of spindles — A record stylus replaces those in the danger department. — while her would-be prince is obsessed with insects and microscopic life forms. All remains silly enough to be enjoyable, and Pete Pryor’s production includes bang-up moments from Kim Carson as a glamorous hard-rocking villain who takes over the stage with each appearance and each song’ Luke Brahdt, showing even more facets of the talent that is quickly earning him points as Philly theater’s Most Valuable Player, Mark Lazar, delighting audiences once again as the quintessential panto dame — Lazar brilliantly handles one moment in which the audience immediately guesses something he wants to draw out with clues, and he tells the stage manager to cut to the end of his bit and proceed. — Tabitha Allen, making coy moues as she celebrates her status the moon — Yes, that moon. — and most especially Abigail Brown as an ice cream-loving star, Sirius, out of orbit and showing as much poise as a dancer, singer, and actress at what I guess to be age 10 as a seasoned theater veteran. This girl’s got the goods! All is sprightly and happy. “Sleeping Beauty” doesn’t quite scale of the heights of “Cinderella,” but it’s a vast improvement over “King Arthur and the Red Dragon” and “The Three Musketeers: The Later Years” in terms of fun and providing the good time panto should always promise. Grade: B-

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