News Column

Winter love blooms in 'Almost, Maine'

November 27, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 27--It's a pretty rare phenomenon when the aurora borealis shines in Bethlehem.

Audience members at the Pennsylvania Playhouse production of "Almost, Maine," opening Dec. 6, will see the vaunted northern lights -- or at least a theatrical representation of them.

Although it's not specifically a holiday play, "Almost, Maine," written by John Cariani, takes place entirely on one day in December in northern Maine.

"This is a small, more quiet, intimate play," says director Clair Freeman. "At 9 p.m. on a Friday, the aurora borealis shine over the small 'almost" town,' and the townspeople fall in and out of love."

Freeman says the play, one of the most produced in the United States, features nine vignettes, each featuring a different couple.

"It's a sweet meditation on love," she says. "You never see the same character in more than one vignette."

Six actors -- Sebastian Paff, Katherine Mayk, Charles Weigold III, Steven Schmid, Syd Stauffer and Kristen Staching -- portray 19 characters.

"It really is an ensemble," Freeman says. "Everything is seen through the eyes of the couples. One of the things that drew me to this play was the idea of creating the life of a small town."

He says the play is really about human connection and has more the flavor of "Our Town," rather than plays by Eugene O'Neill or Tennessee Williams.

One challenge was creating the Maine scenery since some of the play takes place outdoors. Freeman says the set design is different than that usually done at Pennsylvania Playhouse.

"It has a more Impressionistic look," Freeman says. "We worked with draping curtains to give the effect of snowcapped mountains in the background."

He says the aurora is created by "very talented" lighting director Jess Moody. "It's a creative way to tackle something like this. Other effects are the stars and a shooting star that goes across the stage."

-- "Almost, Maine," 8 p.m. Dec. 6-7, 13-14, 19-21 and 3 p.m. Dec. 8, 15 and 22, Pennsylvania Playhouse, Illick's Mill Road, Bethlehem. Tickets: $22; $19 students, seniors, except on Saturdays. http://www.paplayhouse.org, 610-865-6665.

Christmas City Follies

The Old Guy is back from his meeting at the pearly gates with St. Peter, and Little Red is trying to deal with a hectic Christmas pageant with the help of Little Blue.

Touchstone Theatre's holiday vaudeville show "Christmas City Follies XIV" is back starting Dec. 5 to take on everything from capitalism and commercialism to plain mean-spiritedness.

There will be new characters, new skits, more music and more partying.

"I find it remarkably easy to come up with new ideas," director JP Jordan says. "We have a fresh set of apprentices -- some of whom have never seen the show before -- and they have some ideas that are way out there. We are challenged by some of their ideas."

A new face in a new skit is in Joshua Neth, who portrays Marley from "A Christmas Carol," a take that posits Scrooge as a cranky teenage girl.

"In my nine years directing, I don't think we've ever done 'Christmas Carol,' " Jordan says. "This is a Scrooge for the new age."

Also new is a skit based on the Jonathan Coulton song "Chiron Beta Prime," about Christmas in a distant future on another planet, complete with a robot Santa.

Returning are audience favorites, including Bill George's Old Guy; the "always classic cross-dressing angel"; the competition between the angel and star tree toppers; the Pajama Sisters in their onesie pajamas and the Shopping Cart Ballet. Jordan says there is more music than ever since many of the cast members are musical. He says Neth plays saxophone and guitar and Mallory deForest plays oboe and piano.

"There a few minutes of straight musical virtuosity," Jordan says.

He says several of the actors have amazing voices, providing the opportunity for four-part harmony on Christmas standards, and a number about disgruntled elves.

The ensemble also includes Emma Chong, Kyle Lewis, Jordan Orth, Cathy Restivo, Megan Schadler and Mary Wright.

Another new addition are pre- and post-show receptions on Friday and Saturday evenings. Buy desserts and beer, wine and holiday-themed drinks, including eggnog, mulled wine and boilo, a honey spiced liquor, beginning at 7 p.m. in the Touchstone Cafe. Enjoy live musical performances. The party continues at intermission. After the show the audience can mingle with Follies cast members.

-- "Christmas City Follies XIV," 8 p.m. Dec. 5-8, 12-14 and 19-21, and 2 p.m. Dec. 8, 15 and 22, Touchstone Theatre, 321 E. Fourth St., Bethlehem. Tickets: $25; $15 students, pay-what-you-will Thursdays. http://www.touchstone.org, 610-867-1689.

Meet Me in St. Louis

After last year's successful production of "It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play" at Bucks County Playhouse, executive producer Jed Bernstein asked that show's playwright, Joe Landry, if he could give a similar treatment to "Meet in Me St. Louis," the beloved 1944 musical film that starred Judy Garland.

Landry, who calls himself a huge old movie buff, was eager to tackle the show. His newest radio play adaptation, "Meet Me In St. Louis: A Live Radio Play" opens Dec. 5 at Bucks County Playhouse.

"I am really fascinated with the genre," Landry says. "I am really excited about it and grateful for the opportunity."

He says the story has had a circuitous life. It was originally a book by Sally Benson called "The Kensington Stories." The book was made into the MGM musical film and then adapted into a Tony-nominated 1989 Broadway musical that added a dozen songs.

Landry adapted the story from the book by Hugh Wheeler. The show is directed by Gordon Greenberg.

The story follows the Smith family from summer 1903 to spring of 1904 when they consider moving away from St. Louis on the eve of the 1904 World's Fair.

The film featured songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine, including "The Boy Next Door," "Skip To My Lou," "The Trolley Song," "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" and "Meet Me in St. Louis," several of which have become standards.

Landry says in his adaptation, the story is performed as if it were being broadcast live in front of a studio audience in 1946 at the playhouse for AM radio station WBUX.

"Radio plays were popular in the 1940s and the custom was to do radio versions of films," Landry says. "It's a 1940s take on 1903."

Bernstein says the radio play is "an art form that has been lost to technology."

Although the audience is acknowledged, the set isn't made to look like a radio studio, Landry.

An ensemble of five actors and a pianist play 30 roles. Since the actors all play music, there is additional accompaniment on drums, cello, ukulele, guitar and banjo.

Landry says the actors all speak into microphones and there are typical radio sound effects. There also is some choreography by Lorin Latarro.

"It's kind of a hybrid," Landry says.

Set design includes large backdrops that have scenes illuminated to suggest where the characters are.

"It sends the imagination of the audience on a journey," Landry says. "It pays tribute to the original rather than re-create it."

Landry, who also has created an Alfred Hitchcock radio play, says this is the first time he has tackled a musical.

"The movie only has a handful of songs, and the Broadway show added a bunch of songs," he says. "All of the songs from movie are in it, but I'm kind of playing around with which are staying from the Broadway version."

He says the Broadway musical was a "huge show, almost unnecessarily so," and he has scaled down the story for the radio play.

"It is so magical to do something I really enjoy," Landry says.

-- "Meet Me In St. Louis: A Live Radio Play," 7:30 Tuesdays and Fridays, 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays, Dec. 5-29, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S. Main St., New Hope. No shows on Christmas Eve and Christmas. Tickets: $29, $39, $57.50. bcptheater.org, 215-862-2121.

kathy.lauer@mcall.com

610-778-2235

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