Outside, the weather has grown cold and crisp, and pretty lights twinkle from the shop windows and houses. Inside, the TV tells us the way to show love is to give someone a $60,000 car topped with a red bow the size of a middle linebacker.
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!
Another way to tell what time of year it is would be to check theater listings. In the summer, outdoor stages turn to Shakespeare, not to plays about the Fourth of July (though any production of the musical 1776 is welcome!), yet winter’s arrival brings show after show about the true (or at least satirized) meaning of Christmas.
So if that’s how it’s going to be, at least it’s good that theater makers are out there trying to create a few new shows to add to the mix.
Last weekend brought three Christmas-themed premieres to the Portland area, and your dutiful DramaWatcher shook off the tryptophan haze enough to make the rounds.
And I’m sorry to report that, for the most part, duty is what it felt like. Not that there was anything unpleasant to endure. After all, nothing typifies holiday theater more than a kind of fiercely determined geniality.
No matter the season, unpleasantness is out of character at Broadway Rose where “a festive new musical revue” opened, called It Happened One Christmas. The set up is sweet and simple. It’s after hours at a big department store, and Walter, the white-haired security guard (Fred Bishop, avuncular and dignified) makes the rounds to make sure everything is in order. The North Pole display puts him in a nostalgic mood and he sings holiday tunes as he reminisces about a dear, departed wife. Around him, the mannequins come to singing and dancing life, acting out his fantasies and, it seems, their own. And we’re off on an evening of sprightly and assured performances of sprightly and assured arrangements of dozens of Christmas songs, familiar and less so. It’s professional, it’s polished, it’s prosaic.
The show was “written by Dan Murphy and Rick Lewis,” the playbill tells us, but the pair’s main work seems to have been curatorial — selecting (and, in Lewis’ case, arranging) all these songs; there’s just one original tune in the show, a comic come-on called “Beneath the Tree,” given the honey-glazed-ham treatment by Macaulay Culkin/Bryan Adams look-alike Colin Stephen Kane. What strings the songs together is thin thread indeed, brief snatches of dialogue that sometimes sound like they were created by training an AI algorithm on the Hallmark Channel (“Maybe I’m just a hopeless romantic or a sentimental old fool, but I still think there’s some good in the world.”).
Ah, but then someone comes along to clean things up. That would be Frances, the store cleaning lady, played by Jennifer Goldsmith, and whenever she’s onstage things are a little brighter, more truly engaging. In a fine cast of singers all around, Goldsmith’s more nuanced phrasing brings a much needed sense of personality and charm.
At the Chapel Theatre in Milwaukie, critic-turned-writer/director John Longenbaugh is presenting a Victorian mystery story called The Christmas Case. Perhaps I should disclose right off the handicaps I face in evaluating this one. Subtitled “a Lady Brass Mystery,” his new play is part of an elaborate fictional world that Longenbaugh’s Battleground Productions calls “a multi-platform adventure serial about a family of Victorian science geniuses.” As I’m unfamiliar with the rest of the serial, there might be rich character threads here I’ve missed. Also: It’s a mystery. Why do some people so love this genre? My answer: It’s a mystery.
And despite the title, The Christmas Case is primarily a mystery, in this, er, case, about a huge precious sapphire that disappears suddenly and is presumed stolen. Throw in the ingenue from a fading family, her wealthier suitor, a few assorted character types and a couple of those science geniuses” and you have a story that clips along nicely enough through its obligatory twists and turns. An appearance by Father Christmas occasions a fun discussion of holiday symbolism and ritual and the transnational roots of the Santa Claus myth. But that’s ultimately incidental: Plug a rabbit into that scene instead, and you just as readily could call this The Easter Case. In any case, by the second act I found myself too acutely aware that I didn’t care a bit about “whodunnit” or about the stakes of any of the plot points.
That said, amidst a somewhat uneven cast, Allison Anderson as the super-sleuth Lady Brass and Katherine Grant-Suttie as her junior-detective daughter are compelling, leavening their characters’ haughty bearing with glimmers of impish wit. And the show looks good, thanks to terrific costuming by Portland Opera’s Christine Richardson.
Milagro bills Maya Malan-Gonzalez’ A Xmas Cuento Remix as “not your abuela’s Christmas story,” but it’d be nearer the mark to say it’s not your abuela’s story-delivery system. The bones here are unapologetically Dickensian, complete with a greedy/wealthy villain beset by ghostly dreams of past, present and yet-to-be. But the trappings are contemporary and Latinx, with repeated mentions of the importance of eating tamales on Christmas and varied uses of the term “pendejo.” And it’s a musical, spiced with a loose mixture of high-energy pop arrangements.
As a musical, it’s like getting a pair of lighted socks for Christmas: You grin cheerfully while you yearn for the return counter. The singing is inexpert and uneven, the dancing better but still looks a little forced. In its earnest eagerness to be lively and engaging, the production often races headlong into cheesiness.
And yet, it’s something of a joy. Milagro stalwart Veronika Nunez plays Dolores Avara, the Scrooge stand-in, a stern striver who understands the American dream only as an individualist proposition, and it’s hard to say which part of the character she shows most affectingly — the closed off miser we first meet, the hurt loner the ghosts reveal to her, or the grateful giver her epiphany creates.
Meanwhile Tricia Castaneda-Guevara provides the emotional contrasts as Dolores’ down-on-her-luck niece, Andres Alacala anchors the ensemble cast with an easygoing warmth, and the whole thing sneaks into your heart and makes you care about these characters — and people like these characters — in a way the weekend’s other shows don’t.
As I filed out of the theater, I heard a voice behind me — I think it was the voice of noted arts patron Ronni Lacroute — offering an opinion on the show I think I’d agree with: “Ridiculously uplifting!”
Opening (brutal Xmas onslaught redux)
Seeking new Christmas fare with an air of familiarity, playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon created this holiday-themed Jane Austen pastiche, a comic sequel to “Pride and Prejudice,” blending period elegance and modern wit. Though set at the estate of that novel’s main couple, Lizzy and Darcy, Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley centers on the overlooked middle sister, Mary, who has hopes of striking a rom-com match of her own. Portland Center Stage artistic director Marissa Wolf deploys a talent-rich cast, including Lauren Modica, Isaac Lamb, Kailey Rhodes, Josh Weinstein and others.
Stumptown Stages will try to sing the Dickens out of A Christmas Carol, the Musical, directed and choreographed by Gary Wayne Cash, who also stars as the man you love to hate, Ebenezer Scrooge.
If one stock story form won’t do, try two at once! Another example of the strange Christmas/hybrid, Ken Ludwig’s The Game’s Afoot puts Sherlock Holmes into wintry whodunnit territory. Kymberli Colbourne directs for Bag & Baggage.
Fake Radio’s It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t really fake, it’s just not really radio. It’s live, it’s theater. And it’s more than just a facsimile of fun.
As The Nutcracker is for ballet companies in America, so A Christmas Carol is for theaters. American Theatre digs into this shocking scandal (kidding).
Opening (holiday-free edition)
An academic devoted to traditional Scottish folk culture attends a conference on ballads of the country’s border region. But in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, that rather dry-sounding event turns into a dreamlike journey involving a rowdy pub, a fearsome snowstorm, and a devilish stranger. Staged amidst the audience in an immersive, pub-like setting, told in songs and witty couplets, the show is, in the words of the Daily Beast, “satirical, absurd, a literary parlor game, a crazy surf through folkloric history, and a wild and celebratory slice of storytelling-as-art.” This Artists Rep production includes the option to pre-order food and whisky to complete the pub experience. And with stars such as Amy Newman and Darius Pierce, how could you go wrong?
Feeling put down and bossed around? Your special qualities going unrecognized? Want to set things right? Well, then you’ll likely relate to Matilda, the title character of this award-magnet (Tony, Drama Desk, Olivier, etc.) musical, based on a story by the twistedly whimsical Roald Dahl. In a kid-friendly production from Northwest Children’s Theatre, villainous authority is met with precocious intelligence, kindness, and a touch of telekinesis.
Portland Action Theater Ensemble describes Never Too Late Pop-up Escape Room as “a meditation on regret, loss, and healing.” An immersive, puzzle-solving game room sounds more like work than meditation to me, but if the escape-room fad is your idea of fun, here’s a chance to indulge. And if you manage to, well, escape, there’s still William Gibson’s sturdy classic The Miracle Worker, about Helen Keller, at Twilight Theater, and just for this weekend, Profile Theatre presenting “concert stagings” of Ruined and Mother Courage, exploring the interesting juxtaposition of Lynn Nottage and Bertolt Brecht.
The flattened stage
Have an hour to escape the seasonal social tumult? Why not spend it with those wonderful gals, the Apple Sisters, as they perform their Holidoozy Christ-mess Spectacular, Live from Hollywoodland!? As they assure us, it’s “sweet and delicious and free of worms!”
The best line I read this week
“The human soul craves for the eternal of which, apart from certain rare mysteries of religion, only love and art can give a glimpse.”
— from The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.