Your friends are wrong. They have been affected by presidential elections and a skeptical age. They do not believe a good Christmas musical can be seen. They think that most are simply stuffy decorated sets reviving Dickens from the dead. Yes, Portland, there is a good Christmas musical. It is at Broadway Rose Theatre, and it’s called A Very Merry PDX-Mas.
Broadway Rose is in its 25th year as one of Portland’s premier musical-theater venues, and it’s ending its season on a high note. (The 2017 season begins in late January with Company.) A tightly arranged musical jukebox of holiday classics and contemporary songs is presented in PDX-Mas by an expert song and dance team, backed onstage by a trio led by Jeffrey Childs.
The team of seven includes a Portland who’s-who of musical and acting talent. Colin Carver was nominated for a PAMTA for his work in Grease. Sarah DeGrave’s musical work has been seen on many Portland stages. Cassi Q. Kohl performed off-Broadway and has two Drammys under her belt. Isaac Lamb won critics over with his performance as the Stache in Peter and the Starcatcher at Portland Playhouse this year, and also holds a Drammy. Dru Rutledge has performed with the Portland Opera, Oregon Symphony, on a host of acting stages, and has a Drammy. Danielle Valentine is a musical theater teacher and has graced many a Portland stage. Benjamin Tissell is hot off the trails of his magnificent lead performance in Broadway Rose’s Fly by Night and is a local arts teacher and Renaissance man.
The group’s singing is as seamless as blood harmonies. Their vocal stylings are reminiscent of The Blue Stars of France, an early ’50s ensemble led by jazz legends Blossom Dearie and Bob Dorough. The dense sonic wall created by the singers is big and bold. Given solos throughout the show, the singers have a chance to show off their individual talents with prowess.
PDX landmarks dot the stage: the White Stag Portland sign glowing with Rudolph’s nose, the Union Station clock tower, the Broadway Bridge, the bright-bulbed Schnitz sign, snowcapped Mt. Hood, and the heavy red bricks of Pioneer Square.
The PDX-Mas jukebox shuffles through every kind of Christmas: the jet-lagged cynical traveller, the poor kid born on the 25th who gets cheated out of birthday presents, the white elephant gifts that will be re-gifted in a year, the bundled-up city walkers toting their heavy shopping bags. Just as editor Francis Pharcellus Church reminded Virginia O’Hanlon in a letter about the true spirit of the season, PDX-Mas keeps the focus on the spirit of the season.
Abe Reybold, who conceived the show (it’s directed by Dan Murphy and choreographed by Amy Frankel), adapted lyrics to give them local color and flavor. My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music gives up bright copper kettles, warm woolen mittens and schnitzel with noodles for lattes, vacations to Maui, and Prozac. Collin Carver simply remembers his favorite Portland things and then he won’t feel so SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorderly). Green Christmas takes a light-hearted jab at PDX recycle, up-cycle and reusing culture with witty lines such as: “chestnuts roasting on a geo-thermal fire.”
In a clever and delightful medley of Louis Armstrong’s Cool Yule and Nat “King” Cole’s Straighten Up and Fly Right, the choir puts on a sweet-stepping variety act that looks like it was set for a Mad Men episode.
Isaac Lamb lends his tender comic drama skills to The Gospel According to Bernie. Lamb’s Bernie is a working-class shepherd with a Brooklyn accent and Ralph Kramden domestic squabbles. Keeping his character’s shoulder to the grindstone day in and day out, Lamb sings a sympathetic character in an unusual and dear number.
Soprano Dru Rutledge sets off vocal fireworks in a competition with Jeffrey Childs’ piano. From a Mozart motet, her Alleluia number has Rutledge in a sparkling black gown trading and one-upping the piano trills with her arias. The audience was in stitches as Rutledge threw some Callas shade at the keys and overplayed the diva like a Loony Toons underdog.
The finale Joy/ Celebrate Me Home jumps between the close-knit choir and counter balancing the unique vocals of each member: Carver has pop-soul, DeGrave is contemporary Broadway, Kohl lilts with a vocal pop, Lamb booms with his magnetic presence, Rutledge segues between Broadway and Opera stylings. Tissel is down-and-dirty soulful Christmas grit. Valentine’s voice sweeps the theatre in breadth and volume in an incredible sustain that she stops on a dime.
A Very Merry PDX-Mas is a charming package of all the funky and endearing points of culture that make our city. For two hours you’ll get lost and be reminded that there’s no place like home for the holidays.
Broadway Rose’s A Very Merry PDX-Mas continues through December 22 at the New Stage Auditorium in Tigard. Ticket and schedule information here.