Let it show, let it show, let it show: A season’s worth of holiday-themed theatre starts now

Image 1. Tracey Johnston-Crum and Darren Marshall star in this year’s annual Bernstein Family Christmas Spectacular.
Image 2. Montford Park Players brings the merriment back with a traditional version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Image 3. Al Petteway, Amy White and Robin Bullock perform as part of A Swannanoa Solstice. Photo by Stephen Houseworth
Image 4. Michael MacCauley stars in the darkly-funny one-man play Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol at N.C. Stage.

With the holiday season comes too many frosted cookies, too many glasses of eggnog and too many rounds of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (traditional and joke versions). But one thing you won’t have to endure is too many versions of A Christmas Story, or The Grinch Who Stole Christmas or ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, because local theater offers a plethora of holiday shows, from the meaningful to the ridiculous, from the tried-and-true to the fresh-and-new, from the twee to the downright tawdry. And everything in between. Pick one or two or eight; take the family (OK, don’t take them to all of these options, but certainly to some of them) and pack a flask of that eggnog (you didn’t hear that from us).

Traditional

Were he still alive, author Charles Dickens would have turned 200 this year. And even though he died at age 58, in a way he does live on. Especially this time of year when we all revisit his classic Victorian tale, A Christmas Carol. Montford Park Players last year went with a macabre version of the Dickens story. This year, the local theater company goes classic, "bringing the merriment back," along with the company's founding director, Hazel Robinson. Robinson directed the show an astonishing 29 times between 1976 and 2005; following a six-year break, she returns for her 30th go-round at the helm. Montford Park Players promises a show "that will warm people’s hearts and fill them with the holiday spirit."

Immediate Theatre Project's relationship with the feel-good classic It's a Wonderful Life dates back to 2006 when the local company co-produced a stage version with N.C. Stage. The current adaptation (with more classic movie moments and "a richer life to the radio actors of the fictional WVL," according to a press release) was commissioned in '09. The play is based on the film and set "in the fictional studio of WVL Radio Theatre, which is struggling to stay on the air one snowy winter night. The professional voice actors are unable to get through, but the show must go on — and so a small but intrepid band of employees manage to create the dozens of movie characters and scenes using just their voices and a sound effects table."
This year’s production moves to ACT, and stars local actors Catori Swann, Rebecca Morris and Bradshaw Call, with Blythe Coons from Baltimore. 

Snarky

Asheville Community Theatre's annual production of The Santaland Diaries will be without local comedian Tom Chalmers for the first time in seven years. Last year was the 10th season for the one-man show; Chalmers decided it was time to move on (more info on that below). So ACT put out a casting call and six talented actors showed up. Marketing director Jenny Bunn says that Betsy Puckett, the play's director, had a hard time picking a lead "because everyone brought their own take to the show."

Finally, Mars Hill College grad Daniel Hensley was cast. The Santaland Diaries will be his ACT debut. Bunn says that Hensley really feels a connection to the writing of humorist David Sedaris. Santaland is based on Sedaris' own experiences working as a Macy's department store elf during the holiday season.

Hensley went to Erwin High School and spent some time in New York City before returning to North Carolina — a backstory that sort of echoes that of Sedaris, who grew up in N.C. before moving north. "He kind of came to role as someone who really identified with the background of who Sedaris may have been before he embarked on his New York journey," Bunn says of the new Santaland star.

Chalmers stars in his own darkly hilarious story of holiday survival. His one-man play, Harm for the Holidays: Memoirs of a Hallmarked Man, runs down a list of holiday mishaps, from Valentine’s Day to Halloween to Christmas, with a mix of stand-up comedy.

 Slapstick

Inspecting Carol is a play-within-a-play. It's a comedy of errors surrounding a production of A Christmas Carol, which, despite the solemnity and meaning, begins to come apart at the scenes in a laugh-yourself-silly sort of way.

According to Bunn, a struggling Midwestern theater company is mounting the play — perhaps its last production — when they learn that they might receive a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. "A vagabond actor wants to audition, and the company thinks he's a representative from the NEA," explains Bunn. So they give him a role, even though he's terrible. High jinks ensue.

Inspecting Carol is directed by Joan Atwood and stars Craig Justus and Frank Salvo. Salvo is the highlight of many an ACT production, and a regular in the semi-annual holiday plays by the Jones-Hope-Wooten writing team. While Bunn says that ACT will likely stage another play by that locally based trio, they didn't have a seasonal show this year. Inspecting Carol fits the bill when it comes to Christmas-y comedy.

Spooky

Most of us know the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge and his Christmas Eve adventure through past, present and future that leaves him a better person. But what of his late business partner, Jacob Marley, who appears as the first ghost accompanying Scrooge on his journey? The sinister comedy Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol (written by Tom Mula) sets out to answer that question.

“The play begins with Marley having just died, finding himself in the afterlife. As you might have guessed, he is not standing at the Pearly Gates,” says actor Michael MacCauley. “His guide in the spirit world is a very funny character named Bogle, who, along with several others, provides a great deal of comic relief.”

The Asheville production of the one-man play is directed by Andrew Hampton Livingston and stars MacCauley. “Michael plays many characters in this play,” says Livingston. “This is always difficult to pull off in the theater which is one of the reasons why we took on the challenge.” MacCauley uses his voice and body to convey the different characters; the duo will also use multimedia.

“James Johnson will film and edit certain parts of the play and Michael will be acting with himself on a screen during select moments of the play,” says Livingston. “Rus Snelling, our lighting designer, is amazing at creating atmosphere. Jared Stover is composing an original score and each character will have a theme. We don't want to venture too far away from the conventions of the stage but want to explore our possibilities.”

Even though Jacob Marley promises to be dark, Livingston says it’s still a play the whole family can watch. “Humor is very important to the journey of Jacob Marley,” he notes. And, like the Scrooge-centered story, there’s a feel-good ending to look forward to.

“There is a twist to the ending that makes you realize how very lucky Scrooge was to have escaped his inevitable fate,” says MacCauley. “To find out what it is, you need to see it.”

Bawdy

Last year it was the 28th Annual Bernstein Family Christmas Spectacular. “This will be the most spectacular of all spectaculars,” says director Katie Anne Towner of this year’s production. “That’s why we’re skipping from the 28th straight to the 30th.” But to understand why the show is so spectacular, you need some background on the Bernsteins.

Here’s the martini version from character Jimmy Bernstein (aka a press release): “Brothers Jack and Jimmy burst into showbiz as The Bernstein Boys with Frances the Performing Wolverine, and immediately helped end Vaudeville,” goes the legend. After rubbing elbows with the Rat Pack and landing a break into television, tragedy struck. Frances contracted distemper and the Bernstein brothers drank away their woes — until through a drunken singing session they unwittingly wrote their masterpiece, “Merry Christmas Baby, Let Me Ring Your Jingle Bell.” And the Bernstein’s Christmas show was born.

“This year’s spectacular has already been performed for 17 dictators, presidents and prime ministers, three of whom were deceased and exhumed just for the performance, which is to my knowledge a new record for most diplomats exhumed to view a sketch comedy show!” This year’s show stars Tracey Johnston-Crum and Darren Marshall.

Elegant

In case you don't want to wait on the off chance that a roving group of carolers find their way to your door, Flat Rock Playhouse has you covered at their popular downtown venue: A Celtic Christmas infuses traditional carols ("Silent Night," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," "The Little Drummer Boy," "O Holy Night") with Celtic sounds.

For a decade now, A Swannanoa Solstice has rung in the holidays with music, storytelling and dance — and nary a "Frosty the Snowman." Instead of cloying carols, the locally rooted concert presents a "tapestry of joyful and thoughtful seasonal reflection beautifully woven from the mountains’ Appalachian, Scots-Irish and world influences." Al Petteway, Amy White and Robin Bullock (on guitar, mandolin, fiddle, Appalachian dulcimer, piano, harp and world percussion) return to headline A Swannanoa Solstice: 10th Anniversary; Doug Orr (president emeritus of Warren Wilson College and founder of the annual concert) hosts. Special guests include Appalachian storyteller and ballad singer Sheila Kay Adams, Cape Breton-style stepdancers The Twisty Cuffs and Highlands pipes and percussion band Brizeus.

Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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