Jason Wells

‘The Nitemare B4 Xmas’ preview: From cinema to stilts

Fifth annual live adaptation elevates beloved film's strangeness to new heights

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.

'The Nitemare B4 Xmas' returns to Portland this weekend.

‘The Nitemare B4 Xmas’ returns to Portland this weekend.

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.

The Nitemare B4 Xmas opens Thursday night and plays through Sunday at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre. Evening shows start at 8 pm, with a Sunday matinee at 3 pm.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a member of Cascadia Composers and a composition student at Portland State University. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

Want to read more about Oregon performing arts? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!


Chris Murray and Sara Catherine Wheatley in the premiere of Joseph Fisher's "(I Am Still) the Duchess of Malfi" at Artists Rep. Photo: Owen Carey

Bang-bang. You’re dead.

And you, and you, and you.

My, but the Portland stage was littered with bodies over the weekend – more than we can count without peeling off our socks to get to our toes. Governments crumbled, great houses tumbled, and one small family tried very hard to scramble up from the heap. A whip snapped, flagellantly. Fingers got snipped off, excruciatingly. Brains blew away, from extremely close range. Hey, kids, that’s entertainment!

Well, yes, and let us count the ways:

  •  In Portland Center Stage’s premier of Jason Wells’s The North Plan, the immediate body count is only three. But that’s not including the god-only-knows-how-many who might yet take a bullet in the brain as Big Brother decides to clamp down and put an end to this whole democracy farce once and for all.
  •  In Artists Repertory Theatre’s premiere of Joseph Fisher’s (I Am Still) the Duchess of Malfi, a family squabble involving church, state, and some incestuously leaning lechery leads to – never mind; we can’t count that high.
  •  In Third Rail Rep’s production of Allison Moore’s recent Collapse, the serious deadly damage has occurred before the opening curtain, in the rush-hour collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis. That monumental structural failure on August 2, 2007 killed 13 people, injured 145, and caused traumatic psychological damage to untold others.

All of this feels very much like American entertainment, the native expression of a land where a teacher can pack a pistol in a schoolyard but a kid can’t carry a fingernail clipper on an airplane. Yet the roots of violence and political paranoia spread out deep and wide across the sea. Listen to the way the 19th century poet and critic John Addington Symonds described John Webster’s early 17th century revenge tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, the Jacobean English source material for Fisher’s new play:

 “Brief lightning flashes of acute self-revelation illuminate the midnight darkness of the lost souls he has painted. … No dramatist showed more consummate ability in heightening terrible effects, in laying bare the inner mysteries of crime, remorse, and pain combined to make men miserable. … He makes free use of poisoned engines, daggers, pistols, disguised murderers, masques and nightmares. Yet his firm grasp upon the essential qualities of diseased and guilty human nature, his profound pity for the innocent who suffer shipwreck in the storm of evil passions not their own, save him, even at his gloomiest and wildest, from the unrealities and extravagances into which less potent artists … blundered.”

That’s some shipwreck. And apparently the pirates are armed with blunderbusses.