Dec. 04--Musical Theater Heritage tonight unveils its sixth annual edition of "A Spectacular Christmas," a revue of music, humor and storytelling that is never quite the same from year to year.
This year's show is anchored by Lauren Braton, a fine vocalist most recently seen in "Your Hit Parade" at Quality Hill Playhouse. She is joined by a solid lineup of actors who sing: Stephanie Wieneke ("Hello Again"), Bryan LaFave ("Thrill Me") and Justin McCoy ("Ragtime"). Also in the cast are two accomplished actors who do not (as far as I know) sing: Marilyn Lynch and Richard Alan Nichols. Jeremy Watson serves as pianist and musical director.
And the cast, as usual, includes precocious kids: Brendan Hull, 13; Willa Walberg, 11; and Jordan Haas, 10, all of whom have appeared in previous versions of "A Spectacular Christmas." New to the show is Maggie Marx, 17.
George Harter, founder and executive director of MTH, said he sat down and wrote a new script for this year's show. In previous editions, Harter has allowed his imagination to roam freely. One year the show was a sort of post-modern re-creation of a vintage TV special set in his living room. Another edition told a story of homeless people in the West Bottoms. This year, he said, he chose to play it straight, more or less.
"It's still in revue form," Harter said. "It doesn't take place under the 12th Street viaduct or in my living room or anything. (Artistic director) Sarah Crawford always does a good job with the music and it's basically the same format we've had, where we have a connection between the secular and the sacred music.
"We budgeted a little extra to hire a couple of professional actors who are not singers, who are the storytellers. They're the spirit of Christmas past, if you will. So they read the stories and the singers will do what they do."
Harter is bringing back a popular story he wrote years ago, "The Nineteen Cent Angel," a sentimental tale about a Christmas ornament's remarkable longevity that he described as an embellished tale vaguely based on personal experience. And he's written two new pieces.
Harter will not perform in this year's show because he will be leading a London theater trip during the holidays. In addition to producing shows at the Off Center Theatre, MTH organizes several group trips each year for theater lovers. Harter also hosts the syndicated radio show "A Night on the Town," which celebrates musical theater. The show, which Harter founded in 1980, is now heard in what Harter described as "six major markets and 10 or 12 real small ones."
Harter has always read the holiday-ornament story effectively. But his absence from the show this year prompted him to look at the possibility of bringing in seasoned actors.
"When Sarah and I were discussing it, we said everyone loves these little kids, and I said, 'Why don't we get some old people in it?' The goal is that I want to have actors who can make the readings as strong as the music."
Harter said he had also written a skit that involves the entire cast, a comic mashup of "It's a Wonderful Life," "A Christmas Carol" and "A Christmas Story."
Harter said he was saddened by the closing of the American Heartland Theatre in August. But he said MTH has noticed an uptick in attendance since Crown Center shut down the Heartland.
"Yes, we have seen an increase," Harter said. "Our shows are a real good fit for the audience that they had. So, yeah. We saw that with 'Hello Dolly!' There were a lot of folks who just had this habit -- they'd always go out for dinner ... and go see a show at the Heartland, no matter what it was."
"A Spectacular Christmas" runs through Dec. 22 at the Off Center Theatre on the third level of Crown Center. For more information, call 816-845-6000 or go to MusicalTheaterHeritage.com.
Holidays at the Fishtank
Heidi Van, curator of the Fishtank Performance Studio, on Friday opens what she hopes will be a pilot for future annual shows: "12 Plays of Christmas," an anthology of short works by local playwrights.
The writers represented in the inaugural production are Ry Kincaid, Natalie Liccardello, Bryan Moses, Sarah Beth Mundy, Kevin King and Chloe Robbins-Anderson. The show includes dance by Tiffany Powell and original music by Peter Lawless and Teri Quinn.
Performers include Coleman Crenshaw, Erika Baker, Devon Barnes, Joseph De Maria, Peter Lawless, Teri Quinn, Chelsea Anglemyer, Morgan Butler and Stefanie Stevens.
The writers had to follow basic guidelines: Each piece had to run 10 minutes or less and include no more than four characters and be based on a holiday story or tradition.
The show runs through Dec. 15. Tickets are available at 12Plays.BrownPaperTickets.com. For more information, call 816-809-7110.
To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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