Rise up and follow

Flat Rock Playhouse upholds its tradition of delivering fine seasonal entertainment with its current production, a melding of two one-act holiday musicals.

Christmas may be the best time of year to visit North Carolina’s state theater — the playhouse exudes warmth and good spirits. Situated in scenic Flat Rock and surrounded by solemn pine trees, the building’s old wooden beams and wagon-wheel chandeliers evoke an old-world festivity even before the curtain is raised.

In contrast with the folksy setting, the opening-night production was brisk and professional. The Littlest Angel starts off with a choir of effectively microphoned angels singing in the swirling clouds of heaven. In fact, the efficient sound production is one of the show’s most notable features. But what really makes this play solid, successful family entertainment is its ability to appeal to various age groups in specific ways. Youngsters in attendance may have difficulty absorbing the intricacies of some comedy-driven moments, but they’ll have no trouble at all following the basic plot — about an unhappy young cherub whose mission is to get the other angels to loosen up — right on through to its emotional conclusion.

Olivia Palmer, a third-grader at Hendersonville’s Mountain Community School, is delightful in the lead role, while Jane Bushway and Peter Thomasson outdo themselves portraying a variety of hilarious characters, from heaven’s switchboard operator to the instructor who teaches angels to fly.

While The Littlest Angel relies on suggestion and pantomime, The Gift of the Magi features a full set, complete with a wig shop and a jewelry store. Dane Whitlock and Lisa Kanoy play impoverished newlywed couple Jim and Della Young, who long to show their love for each other with the perfect Christmas presents; in the process, each ends up sacrificing their most valuable possession (his heirloom watch, her luxurious, Rapunzel-like mane). Although nearly everyone knows this story — penned by former Asheville resident O. Henry, who’s buried in Montford’s Riverside Cemetery — this production, staged as a musical, possesses a freshness and innocence that make it relevant again. Director Betsy Bisson dresses her cast in period costumes and arranges entrances and exits in a complex pattern, creating the impression of a crowded city street at Christmas time.

At one point, 20 actors flit about: children throwing snowballs, a peddler bantering with the local cop, a Salvation Army band honking out a tune, and Della gazing longingly in the jewelry-store window. Though set in an American city, international flavors spice things up, enhancing the cosmopolitan feel — the jeweler is German, the cop Irish, the peddler Italian, and the children’s songs include lyrics in Spanish and French as well as an American spiritual, “Rise Up Shepherd and Follow.”

The blend of language and custom renders a classic scene. Families looking for a way to bond during the holidays should not miss Flat Rock Playhouse’s current shows. The theater’s rustic setting and seamless production values perfectly complement the sense of compassionate entertainment that each work conveys.

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