I always figured it would be impossible to adapt The Nightmare Before Christmas to the stage. At first glance, it seems an ideal candidate, with its legendary Danny Elfman score and quintessentially quirky Tim Burton vibe, to say nothing of its legions of die-hard fans. Besides all that, Disney—which, through what basically amounts to a clerical error, owns the property and all its licensing—has had huge success with Broadway adaptations of its other animated musicals, including Beauty and the Beast and Julie Taymor’s puppet-driven The Lion King.
On the other hand, I think part of the reason Nightmare seems so unadaptable is its pure strangeness. It’s hardly typical Disney fare, after all, with its skeletal leading man and chorus of ghouls and goblins, and the weird charm of director (formerly of Portand’s Laika Studios) Henry Selick’s stop-motion animation is a big part of what gives the musical its ghost-like charm.
Portland troupe The Saloon Ensemble, under the direction of Jason Wells, have found a way to make it work. This weekend they open their fifth annual run of The Nitemare B4 Xmas, a live interpretation that has finally outgrown its previous home at The Secret Society.
When I spoke with Wells before Tuesday’s dress rehearsal at their new venue, Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre, he told me that his first love is the music, and he’s built the show around playing the score in its entirety. Wells, a composer himself, has, like the present author, nursed a wild admiration for Elfman since childhood. The Saloon Ensemble doesn’t just sit around playing music, though; the nine-piece band is accompanied by a cast of singers and actors portraying all the key roles, from Jack and Sally down to Dr. Finkelstein and the two-faced Mayor. Everyone dresses up, including the band and the audience.
Here’s the detail that really sold me on this adaptation: the actors playing Jack and Sally perform on stilts. Wells told me that this decision has limited his choice of actors considerably, joking “I’m on my fourth Sally!” Stilt-maker and March Fourth Marching Band member Jeremiah Guske reprises his lead role as Jack Skellington.
Putting actors on stilts so they can play animated characters gives the whole production a carnival vibe that not only fits well with the cabaret feel of the music, but also recalls the early days of Elfman’s first group, The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. The Mystic Knights eventually turned into a horror-pop band and shortened their name to Oingo Boingo, but back in the ‘70s, they were better known for playing gonzo circus music in packed L.A. nightclubs while dressed up in frog suits and clown makeup. The Mystic Knights were the sort of ensemble who built their own instruments, sang old Tin Pan Alley tunes and madcap gypsy music, imitated Balinese dance and gamelan, and usually did a lot of fire-breathing: according to legend, Elfman once singed an audience member’s eyebrows right off his face.
Yet for all the eldritch costumes and bizarre antics, this really is still a family show. Wells assured me that, unlike Saloon Ensemble’s previous production, J.A.W.Z. The Musical—In 3D!, this show is meant for all audiences. Parents are encouraged to skip the babysitter, bring the kids, and come dressed in character. There will be a costume contest, there will be a screaming contest, there will be tricks and treats for all ages, there will be sing-a-longs.
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