Two Tales of Christmas

Two local companies are presenting shows with a touch of holiday sentimentality

"Oh, the weather outside is"—delightful. This, of course, is one of the many blessings of celebrating the holidays in Tucson. But if you find that you're thinking Christmas needs to be situated someplace where it snows (even if the snow is fake) and where people prepare geese and plum pudding for Christmas dinner, take a look at a couple of the shows onstage at our local theaters. 

If you're looking for a Christmas show that encourages you to yuck it up, you're in luck. The Gaslight Theatre has been adding such festive fare to the holidays for 35 years. This year it has re-mounted A Smalltown Christmas, a jaunty trip down memory lane to when times were simpler, and even though things might look a little grim, you could count on good to prevail.

Curiously, the setting for A Smalltown Christmas is, well, Smalltown. It's the early 1960s and things are not looking so great for Pop's Record Shop on Main Street. Times are lean and Pops (David Orley) can't come up with the rent on his store, which is owned by ol' meanie Mayor Dishwater (shamelessly mugging Joe Cooper). He doesn't feel like being generous, even if it is Christmas, because he wants the business to fail so he can shut down the building and sell the land to those wishing to put a highway through town. So Pops is trying to put a brave face on for daughter Rolinda (Tarreyn Van Slyke), who is holding out hope that all will be well, even if her boyfriend, HotRod Lincoln, (Jake Chapman) who is in the military, might not make it home for Christmas. 

But it's that magical time of year, and lovely surprises do happen. HotRod comes home and gives Pops the money he was saving to buy a ring for Rolinda, whom he wants to marry. Pops declines, but HotRod insists. There's an ice-skating race that HotRod enters to try to beat Dishwater's none-too-bright son, Reginald (Mike Yarema). Then there's a dance contest and—well, there's a lot of stuff happening, all in the hopes of keeping Smalltown intact and the Christmas spirit alive.

Since this is the Gaslight, there are plenty of corny jokes and puns that inspire groans and chuckles; tons of energetic song and dance numbers; and good spirit enough to stop ol' Dishwater from getting his way. Although this may not be writer/director Peter Van Slyke's best script, there is still full-out commitment from the skilled Gaslight regulars, who are backed by the Gaslight band led by musical director Linda Ackermann.

Then, in case you haven't had enough fun, welcome to Part 2 of your Gaslight holiday experience. As is their custom, after the actual play the players perform a variety show. And although this time the theme is Christmas-y, it's still very lighthearted and wonderfully silly. These folks know what they're doing and they do it well. 

Way up north—no, not the North Pole, but Oro Valley—there's a new theater trying to take root, and it seems to be succeeding. The Great American Playhouse is producing only its second show, an adaptation of the season's perennial favorite, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

Advertised as a theater the whole family can enjoy and presenting shows in the melodrama convention, GAP seems closely patterned to the Gaslight Theatre style. But there are differences emerging, if A Christmas Carol is any indication.

We all know the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and Jacob Marley's ghost, who ushers in three spirits that try to teach Scrooge what the Christmas spirit is all about: kindness and generosity and a caring connection with those with whom we share the Earth. The hope is to encourage Scrooge to mend his mean-spirited ways.

The GAP's version is written and directed by Nick Seivert, who also plays Marley (and a few more secondary roles). It sticks pretty close to the original and adds songs from a variety of sources, including a couple written by Helen Gregory specifically for this show. It really doesn't have much of the campy style one might expect. Although there are moments that inspire chuckles, and we are encouraged to boo the "Bah, humbug" guy, the presentation is really much more musical theater than melodrama. There is most definitely a serious tone as Scrooge (Michael Claridge) makes his Christmas Eve visitations to scenes of the past, the present and the future, which transform this misanthrope into a good and generous spirit.

Although the resulting experience for the audience is entertaining, the show feels a bit rough around the edges. For one thing, the cast is uneven, with some young and inexperienced actors sharing the stage with veteran actor/singers. There were some volume and sound equipment issues as well as some less-than-inspired staging and sloppily executed choreography.

There were, however, some excellent elements that lifted the production. Claridge created a wonderful Scrooge, and his songs provided an absolute "Wow!" factor. The cast was full of good voices, especially Colleen Zandbergen, who played several roles, including the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Emily Call, who also played several roles, including Mrs. Cratchit. And young Bailey Axen does an outstanding job as Tiny Tim.

Perhaps the most amazing performance of the evening was delivered by musical director and pianist Mike R. Padilla. Not only did he accompany the musical numbers, he also underscored the entire show, providing a valuable sense of movement and context for the action.

The GAP also performs a variety show, or olio, after the play. This one is Christmas-themed, oddly enough, and includes both comic and serious moments.

Although these guys are still working to build a theater, with food service, from the ground up, there's much to enjoy. It will be interesting to see their evolution as they work to develop an identity and attempt to establish the first-rate company they aspire to be.

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