The Bernstein Family welcomes a new director

HOLIDAY CHEER FOR ALL: The dysfunctional Bernstein family takes the stage at The Magnetic Theatre. This marks the seventh year for the off-kilter holiday comedy, starring Tracey Johnston-Crum, left, among others. Photo by Rodney Smith/Tempus Fugit Design

If holiday bong hits, promiscuity and the reimagining of baby Jesus as a 250-pound, drunk, middle-aged man sporting a diaper offends you, The 45th Annual Bernstein Family Christmas Spectacular probably isn’t for you. “Nothing is really sacred in the Bernstein land,” says Chall Gray, the show’s producer. It will be onstage at The Magnetic Theatre through Friday, Dec. 23.

The sketch comedy is entering its seventh year of production (despite what its title suggests). The Bernstein’s longevity and success, however, is not what impresses the show’s producer the most — it’s the continual camaraderie and joy that each year’s process brings. “If you had told me back in 2010 that, six years later, it would still be just as fun, I would have been surprised,” Gray says.

Along with its brash comedy and flippancy, a consistent cast has played a key role in the production’s success. Tracey Johnston-Crum, Darren Marshall, Glenn Reed, Erick Moellering and Kirby Gibson share the stage for a third straight year. The show has, however, welcomed a new director. Jeff Catanese took over the position previously held by Katie Anne Towner. A work-related scheduling conflict prevented Towner from returning to the show.

Johnston-Crum — who plays a number of characters, including the sex-crazed, martini-drinking, Judy Bernstein — says the transition of a new director has been seamless. “[Catanese] has really been great about working with us and allowing us to vocalize who our characters are, what we mean to each other and how the family relationships play out.”

Catanese agrees. He notes that everyone has been welcoming and open to his input. “What I’m bringing to the table is my sense of humor and a pair of eyes from the audience’s perspective,” he says.

The continuity of the actors helps, as well: “I’m able to come in and direct the new show, the new material, without having to worry too much about these characters,” says Catanese.

A fresh script each year is a component of the Bernstein’s success. No two shows are ever the same. This allows for storylines to build and jokes to evolve. It also requires a fine balance. The material has to connect with first-time viewers as well. In Catanese’s opinion, it is this feature of the production that differentiates The Bernstein Family Christmas Spectacular from other holiday shows. Many productions that take the stage this time of year are known tales, he says. “What is unique about [Bernstein] is that … it’s always brand-new.”

Johnston-Crum embraces the challenge that comes with the ever-changing skits and storylines. Part of it, she says, stems from the fact that the cast knows the characters so well. “Usually with a show, when you’re developing it from the beginning, you’re working on character study,” she says. “We’ve already done that. … We know each other and we trust each other and we know how each character is going to react.” This upfront knowledge, Johnston-Crum says, allows for the actors to be looser during the initial rehearsals.

While cast and crew remain tight-lipped about this year’s script, they all hint at a big surprise. Gray says there will be a tragic Christmas accident that results in the Bernsteins’ “needing to hold open auditions to fill the slot of a dearly departed family member. … The training and indoctrination of the new member result in both family hostility and sweet, sweet love.”

For Catanese, it seems appropriate that a new character will join the show during his first year as director. “To be able to be a part of that is very exciting,” he says.

Mystery character aside, Johnston-Crum says this year’s production will resonate with audiences for the same reasons it has in years past. “We like to poke fun at everything, including ourselves. And by ourselves, I mean everything here in Asheville,” she says. “It’s an eclectic blend of craziness and wonderfulness that is a direct reflection of Asheville.”

WHAT: The 45th Annual Bernstein Family Christmas Spectacular

WHERE: The Magnetic Theatre, 375 Depot St.

WHEN: Through Friday, Dec. 23. Check website for showtimes. $24.

About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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2 thoughts on “The Bernstein Family welcomes a new director

  1. et

    It is great to read Thomas Calder”s piece! I have enjoyed his food entries and it is wonderful to see this subject matter from him!!!

  2. Big Al

    I am a BIG fan of Magnetic Theater, the Bernstein Spectacular, and all of the actors involved. My experience with the new director is limited but so far I like him too.

    Having said that, I found this year’s Bernstein Spectacular (my fourth) disappointing.

    The syfy nerd in me loved the candy cane Bat’Leths, the GoT intro to Pas De Dudes and the return of Justin Fist.

    But I sorely miss Cookie Crumbles (I would enjoy an entire play on that character alone) and cannot say that I care AT ALL for the new Bernstein.

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