Santa’s got a brand-new bag

Sick and tired of the usual holiday theater? This season offers some new productions and some innovative updates of the old chestnuts.

Kelton Pisano and Tasha Emery McLaughlin, in a publicity shot for the Sacramento Theatre Company’s production of The Little Prince.

Kelton Pisano and Tasha Emery McLaughlin, in a publicity shot for the Sacramento Theatre Company’s production of The Little Prince.

Photo By Paul Estabrook Photography

A few months after she became artistic director of the Sacramento Theatre Company (STC) in 1998, Peggy Shannon realized she had a problem.

Ebenezer Scrooge wasn’t pulling his weight at the box office.

“We had been doing A Christmas Carol for many years in a row,” Shannon recalled. It was an original adaptation by Sacramento playwright Richard Hellesen with music by the late Dave de Berry, written for the company in 1988.

The show was a critical and popular success when STC first mounted it in 1989, and it quickly became something of a local tradition.

But year after year of virtually identical productions had given the show a predictable, almost robotic feel. And the audience was starting to drift away. This was a real concern; during the holiday season, attendance typically surges, as thousands of people who don’t generally see live performances treat themselves and their families to a show. Arts groups—whether they produce works of theater, ballet or music—rely on holiday-season box-office revenue to cover the cost of other productions (generally edgier new work for theater producers, and less-familiar classics for ballet and musical groups). Nobody wants to just break even on a Christmas show.

“Looking at the numbers, I saw a decline in attendance,” Shannon said. “Talking with patrons, I noticed there were more and more people who just didn’t want to see Christmas Carol anymore.”

Shannon also got a pointed message when daughter Aliyah saw A Christmas Carol in 1999. The toddler let out a scream when the pale ghost of Jacob Marley appeared onstage wrapped in chains, to the sound of a thunderclap.

“My daughter was literally terrified by my own production,” Shannon said. “And as a mother, I wanted to do something that was joyful and celebratory and fun, rather than something that had a lot of darkness and scary things in it.”

So, at the suggestion of Sacramento composer Gregg Coffin, Shannon went to the coast, to size up the Shakespeare Santa Cruz festival’s holiday production of Cinderella. Coffin wrote the music for that show. Shannon liked it, and—perhaps more importantly—so did her son Isaiah.

STC mounted its own production of Cinderella in 2000—and it was a hit. Kids squealed with delight at the costumes, storytelling and songs. Adults got a kick out of the show’s outrageous men in drag: the evil Mrs. Baddenrotten (who goes through husbands like Kleenex) and her nasty daughters Regan and Goneril. The show played to capacity audiences throughout the run.

But after successful revivals of Cinderella in 2001 and 2002, Shannon decided to give the show a rest.

“My plan is to establish three shows we can rotate,” Shannon said. “We did Cinderella for three years. And we have Gregg Coffin writing a new show, about Mother Goose. And then Christmas Carol could come back.”

But that left this year’s holiday slot open. Shannon decided to do The Little Prince, based on the book for children, because “it’s all about imagination and generosity, which are good holiday themes.”

But while The Little Prince holds STC’s main stage, Shannon is offering something entirely different at STC’s smaller Stage II Theatre: The SantaLand Diaries. Based on a now-famous National Public Radio commentary by David Sedaris, the play is a wickedly sardonic, almost bitchy account of a gay actor’s seasonal job in a big-city department store, dressed in a ridiculous outfit as one of Santa’s elves. The character of “David” (played by Mario Cabrera) deals with parents cracking under pressure, crying children, and intensifying shopping frenzy—which come in for a razor sharp, darkly comic assessment.

Shannon explained her two-pronged programming strategy this way: “Little Prince is for kids and families. SantaLand is for younger adults who want to go out and see something outrageous.”

The SantaLand Diaries is directed by Coffin—his rookie assignment in that capacity. Coffin also did the music for the show, and his mocking arrangements of holiday standards underline Cabrera’s antics onstage. “I set myself the goal of visiting all kinds of Christmas music and setting in different twisted ways to serve Sedaris’ humor,” Coffin said. “So, I made the ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ into a slinky striptease number,” which plays as Cabrera peels off his street clothes and slides into his velvet elf outfit. Coffin also turned “Do You Hear What I Hear?” into a takeoff of Madonna’s “Vogue” and gave “The Carol of the Bells” a Metallica-style arrangement.

The choice between a family-oriented show and edgier fare is a decision all local theater companies face. Throughout the past few years, the Foothill Theatre Company has staged very different shows, some based on literary classics (Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales) and others that are pop-culture crossovers (A Christmas Story, a 1950s comedy based on a narrative by radio commentator Jean Shepherd, which was filmed in 1983).

But this year, for the first time since 1994, Foothill’s artistic director, Philip Charles Sneed, programmed A Christmas Carol.

“After years of refusing to do the play, the radical thing was to do it again,” Sneed said. “It’s a great, great story—just not every year.”

Jonathan Stutzman and Brittnie Hamlin on the set of <i>This One Night</i>, the B Street Theatre&#8217;s holiday show.

There are more than 200 film and television versions of A Christmas Carol and hundreds more for the stage. But Sneed wanted a fresh take: a human-scale production involving simple props, based on the language of Dickens’ original.

So, Sneed sat down with his core cast—just six actors—and together, they read Dickens’ text. Then they developed their own script, staying as close as possible to the author’s words and shaping the staging to favor the comic and dramatic abilities of the cast. “This kind of piece is the perfect vehicle for a company to use its unique aesthetic,” Sneed said. “Dickens’ original has great dialogue and great narrative, and our approach is to use it. We call on special effects only where necessary to tell the story.”

Veteran actor David Silberman—who played Jacob Marley in four productions of STC’s A Christmas Carol during the 1990s—will play Scrooge for the first time in Foothill’s adaptation. “I’m trying to put the voices of all those other actors I’ve seen play Scrooge clear out of my mind,” Silberman confessed.

“There are so many scenes in the book that are almost never done on stage,” Silberman said, “like the part where the Ghost of Christmas Present transports Scrooge to a lighthouse, and a ship at sea, and a coal mine, showing him Christmas in the dark places where people are working. We are keeping those things in the show.”

“Dickens’ narrative is incredible; it’s with regret that you lop anything off. But we’ve kept the show to 90 minutes,” Silberman said. “We aren’t using any dance numbers or songs that get put into big productions. It’s great to get back to the ghost story and tale of redemption that I think the thing really is.”

Scrooge also is getting a rest on two other Sacramento stages where he’s appeared in recent years.

“For the last three years, we’ve done different adaptations of Christmas Carol,” said Stephanie Gularte, artistic director of the Delta King Theatre, which is onboard the old paddlewheel riverboat in Old Sacramento.

Gularte has reached the conclusion that her theater’s clientele isn’t looking for an old man who calls out, “Bah, humbug.”

“Our primary audience isn’t families with kids. Our demographic is adults going to office parties or looking for an evening out,” Gularte said. “They’ll stop in the bar upstairs and bring a drink down to see our show. They’re looking for more of a grown-up entertainment option.”

So, this year, Gularte is offering a proven audience-pleaser with no discernable holiday connection: the contemporary revue I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, which is about dating, courtship, marriage and sex (not necessarily in that order). It’s easily the most popular show Gularte has produced on the boat, and she’s counting on a successful revival to kick off the Delta King Theatre’s first-time offer of a full-season subscription plan. Subscriptions give a theater company financial stability because, with a portion of the tickets pre-sold, the company doesn’t have to work as hard to market individual shows.

Last year, River Stage mounted a version of A Christmas Carol, as staged by a traveling troupe of European jugglers and clowns. But this year, River Stage’s artistic director, Frank Condon, programmed Five Women Wearing the Same Dress. The gabby backroom ‘girl comedy’ involves five bridesmaids drinking champagne and smoking a joint after a wedding ceremony, while dishing dirt about unfaithful men, the physical pleasure of sex and the folly of marriage. There’s no reference to the holidays—though the atmosphere resembles that of an office Christmas party, where tongues loosened by alcohol lead into impulsive remarks.

Condon said he deliberately picked an “edgy show” because he doesn’t want to stage a sentimental entry every December. “It’s a change-up. I approach the holiday slot like a pitcher,” he said. “I try to come up with something totally different from what we did the year before.”

Something different is also the order of the day at the B Street Theatre, which, as a self-described “new works theater,” would never stage a 160-year-old classic like A Christmas Carol.

This year, the B Street is staging an original holiday play by Buck Busfield, the B Street’s producing artistic director, who’s written a half-dozen plays for the December slot. The new play is called This One Night, and Busfield said, “It’s about a widower, an older man who lives alone and is in poor health. He’s being visited by memories that are incarnate. He’s struggling to work out the loose ends of his relationships before he moves on to the other side.”

Sound just a little bit like old Scrooge, alone in his house, being visited by the three ghosts? Perhaps. But don’t expect a Dickensian, Victorian focus on social justice. Busfield’s references are decidedly contemporary, dealing with the chilly relations between father and son, and the administration of President George W. Bush.

“Hopefully, there will be some heart and humor there,” said Busfield. “Hit ’em with some poignancy.”

Busfield has found that a poignant ending works well in December, especially if the ending incorporates aspects of renewal, redemption or reconciliation.

Another secret: brevity. “People want a good shot of entertainment at this time of year, but they want it short,” Busfield said matter-of-factly. “They’ve got a lot of other stuff to take care of. Our holiday shows are always extremely well-attended, but I’ve never seen people clear out of the lobby as fast as they do after a holiday production.”

Professional theater directors face an annual decision about whether to go with Scrooge —or something else— in December.

But there’s only one dance company in the region operating at the professional level: the Sacramento Ballet. And when the calendar turns to December, the Sacramento Ballet—like almost every other ballet company in the country—turns to The Nutcracker, which dominates the dance world the way A Christmas Carol once dominated live theater.

Artisans at Vozrozhdenie Ltd. in St. Petersburg, Russia, assemble scenery for <i>The Nutcracker</i>. This year, the Sacramento Ballet replaced old set pieces with $150,000 worth of new sets from Vozrozhdenie.

Photo Courtesy of Alain Vaës

The Nutcracker premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1892, with music by Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (who had written music for Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty) with choreography by French-born Marius Petipa, the father of the modern ballet.

The Nutcracker has had an interesting history, like a slow-burning fuse that eventually ignited a big bang. Within 25 years of the premiere, The Nutcracker—not a socialist work—was caught up in the Russian Revolution of 1917. (And St. Petersburg was renamed Leningrad, though the name quickly reverted after the Soviet Union broke up in 1991).

It took decades for The Nutcracker to find its way overseas, and even longer before it became a Christmas standard. The first complete production of The Nutcracker in London was in 1934. It wasn’t mounted in the United States until 1946, by the San Francisco Ballet.

The turning point was George Balanchine’s 1952 production with the New York City Ballet. Balanchine was born in Russia in 1904 and studied dance at the (pre-revolution) Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg as a youth. After Lenin’s revolution overthrew the czar, Balanchine (like composer Igor Stravinsky and many others) departed for the West. Balanchine joined Sergei Diaghilev’s legendary Ballet Russe in the 1920s, touring Europe as one of the company’s principal dancers. Balanchine eventually settled in New York in the 1930s and became the leading choreographer of his time.

“Balanchine is always thought of for his groundbreaking, contemporary work,” said Ron Cunningham, who shares the title of artistic director at the Sacramento Ballet with his wife, Carinne Binda. “So, when Balanchine staged Nutcracker in the 1950s, a lot of people thought, ‘Gee, why is he doing it?’”

Balanchine did it because he remembered The Nutcracker with fondness from his childhood. “That first year in New York, Balanchine’s Nutcracker had maybe a half-dozen performances, which is the way it had always been done,” Cunningham said.

Ordinarily, a ballet cycles back into a company’s repertoire after three or four years. Balanchine took a gamble. “The next year, he brought Nutcracker back for around 30 performances,” Cunningham said. “It triggered an American dance phenomenon.”

Nowadays, almost every American ballet company does The Nutcracker in December—and the proceeds underwrite the season’s other productions.

The Sacramento Ballet is no exception. The company will stage 22 performances of The Nutcracker this year, starting December 6. The rest of the Sacramento Ballet’s season consists of four productions, totaling 16 performances spread over the fall and spring. The Nutcracker is the goose that lays the golden eggs, making other productions possible—whether it’s a classic like Giselle (which the Sacramento Ballet will present in February) or new work.

Cunningham sees The Nutcracker as both a personal favorite and an audience builder. “All American ballet companies owe a huge debt to Nutcracker,” Cunningham said. “Ask any professional dancer, ‘Why did you start dancing?’ They’ll tell you they saw Nutcracker as a child. Ask, ‘What was the first ballet you danced in with professionals?’ The answer is Nutcracker.”

Many adults don’t consciously recognize The Nutcracker as a ballet; they just know it as a traditional holiday show they enjoy. “It is the entree to ballet for most Americans,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham’s other audience builder is children. “Most big ballet companies use 200 or 300 children in Nutcracker,” Cunningham said. “This year, we will have 560 children involved.

“I don’t try to turn girls into ‘baby ballerinas,’” he said, “but a wonderful thing happens every year. The children look up to our professional dancers,” who are single, 20-something, childless adults with incredibly trim bodies. “We never let our professional dancers forget that they are role models,” Cunningham said. Each year’s production serves to motivate several local youngsters toward a career in dance.

This year, the Sacramento Ballet’s Nutcracker will feature $150,000 worth of new scenery, replacing several pieces of well-worn gear built for the San Francisco Ballet’s 1946 production. (The San Francisco Ballet sold the sets to the Sacramento Ballet in 1968 for a mere $5,000—and Sacramento proceeded to use them for another 35 years!)

The new sets were designed by French-born Alain Vaës, who’s worked with the New York City Ballet among others. The new sets were built during the summer in St. Petersburg by Vozrozhdenie Ltd., a company that specializes in ballet scenery. In fact, Vaës worked with Vozrozhdenie on sets for The Nutcracker for a different ballet company the year before. As scenery builders, Russian craftsmen hold a solid reputation—and with international currency-exchange rates favoring the dollar over the ruble, getting the sets made in St. Petersburg made economic sense.

The new sets were shipped from Russia to Oakland by sea in September. Included were huge scrims depicting a snowy conifer forest lit by moonlight (based on Cunningham’s recommendation that it “look like Lake Tahoe in winter”) and a fantastic city with candy-cane towers.

But the eye-popper is an extended scrim that gradually unrolls, from the floor of the stage up into the overhead fly space, to create a “growing” Christmas tree. What begins as an ordinary, 10-foot-tall tree gradually expands into something like a giant sequoia, with the lower branches, replete with three-dimensional ornaments, spreading over the width of the stage.

To go with the new sets, the Sacramento Ballet is doing something it hasn’t done in a decade—hired a live orchestra to play Tchaikovsky’s music. Though preferable in artistic terms, this is a financial risk, considering flesh-and-blood musicians cost a lot more than recorded music. The dancers also have to stay extra alert because a human conductor might vary the tempo.

This year’s run of The Nutcracker will include a Nutty Nutcracker performance on December 23. “This is a tradition with some other companies, but new for us,” Cunningham said. “The performers get to have a little extra fun, sort of a Monty Python version.”

Actually, “alternative” versions of The Nutcracker are multiplying. Choreographer Mark Morris, regarded as the leading figure in American dance, has staged a production called The Hard Nut—The Nutcracker with a Twist for several years.

Ron Cunningham, an artistic director for the Sacramento Ballet, coaches Amanda Peet and Michael Vester in rehearsals for The Nutcracker.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Locally, Doniel Soto and his “physical theater” group, Abandon Productions, plan to enter the fray with a spoof of The Nutcracker (see this week’s cover photo), opening December 5. “We’ve been planning our own version of Nutcracker since starting our company three years ago,” Soto said.

Don’t expect your usual sugarplum fairy. Soto said that Abandon’s Nutcracker will be “a comic, fantastical, sensual holiday odyssey. It will be a little bit racy, a little bit ‘out there.’”

Soto and his cast of six were still rehearsing and editing the piece as this story went to press. Expect the hallmarks of Soto’s previous shows: lots of flexing limbs and acrobatic movement, with bodies joined in clusters, creating elaborate images and visual humor, underscored by wordless singing. And bring a blanket; evening shows at The Space (the converted metal shed where Abandon performs) get chilly in winter.

Just as The Nutcracker dominates dance in December, George Frideric Handel’s Messiah is the major holiday standard in concert halls.

There is a bit of irony in this. The first performance of Messiah was a charity fund-raiser, held in Dublin during April 1742—close to Easter. Most scholars agree that Messiah wasn’t envisioned as a Christmas piece but rather a summary of the Christian faith. Much of the oratorio deals with the Resurrection; less than half deals with the birth of Christ.

Performance standards for Messiah have varied widely throughout the years. The earliest performances featured 16 or so voices, with an orchestra of no more than 40 instruments. Handel revised the score repeatedly, making it bigger and bigger.

Messiah became downright huge in the late 1800s, when London performances often featured 2,000 or more singers—the stadium concerts of their day.

Recently, the fashion has returned to “period instrument” performances, reflecting the smaller choral forces and baroque instruments used in Handel’s time. Conductor Jeffrey Thomas and the American Bach Soloists, who perform Messiah at the Mondavi Center on December 12 (in addition to several Bay Area performances), will use an orchestra with valve-less brass and gut-strung violins. “The sound is more delicate, more expressive,” Thomas said.

“Most people think of Messiah as a stream of wonderful choruses,” Thomas said, “but each scene is a miniature drama, with action and continuity. The ideal is that the listener should be brought all the way through, comprehending the larger story.”

Just as audiences who aren’t hooked on ballet nonetheless love The Nutcracker, Messiah clicks with listeners who don’t recognize the term “oratorio.”

“The ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ alone is one of the world’s most recognizable tunes,” Thomas said. “Every time we sing it, it’s a happening.”

And just as The Nutcracker brings newcomers to other ballets, Thomas counts on Messiah to lead listeners to other choral works, such as Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion, which Thomas will conduct at the Mondavi Center on February 26. “It’s one of the reasons I’m committed to doing Messiah year after year,” Thomas said. The annual Messiah concert has sold out for the last four years in a row. Although it’s not official, it’s more than likely that a second performance at the Mondavi Center will be added next year.

Other holiday-music presenters are expanding. Chanticleer—the 12-voice professional male chorus from San Francisco—has sold out the group’s annual Christmas concert in Sacramento for five years running. Originally held at the 1,100-seat Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, the concert is moving to the 1,800-seat Mondavi Center on Saturday, December 20.

And the Sacramento Choral Society likewise is adding seats. Last year, the Choral Society moved its Home for the Holidays program from the 2,400-seat Community Center Theatre to the 3,000-seat Sacramento Memorial Auditorium. This year, the Choral Society is expanding again, giving a December 13 concert at the Memorial Auditorium and then repeating the program on December 14 at the Mondavi Center.

The Choral Society’s holiday concert is the biggest of its kind in Sacramento, almost a theatrical event, with 250 singers and a 50-piece orchestra. “The Memorial Auditorium concert begins in darkness, with the orchestra down in front and the choir in the balcony, circling the audience,” said conductor Donald Kendrick. “We’ve got 200 adult singers and another 50 children, each carrying a glow stick for a candle-like effect.” The singers form a procession from the balcony to the main floor, up through the aisles amid the audience, before finally ascending to the stage.

One thing that sets holiday concerts apart from theater performances and productions of The Nutcracker is that holiday concerts don’t shy away from the religious aspects of Christmas. This is a major contrast because theater companies typically avoid anything that seems overtly religious. A Christmas Carol is unquestionably rooted in Christian thinking—there are church bells in the background, and Tiny Tim has the famous final line “God bless us, everyone,” but Jesus is never mentioned, and Scrooge never enters a church.

Likewise, The Nutcracker is set during the Christmas season, but you never see a priest or a cross.

Messiah, on the other hand, is unabashedly religious throughout. Chanticleer’s December concerts feature Gregorian chanting, medieval carols and modern sacred works. The Sacramento Choral Society’s concerts involve more contemporary material but still invite the audience to participate in well-known carols.

You could say that holiday-concert audiences prefer older, more religious material, and theater audiences seem to prefer newer, more-secular plays. Messiah is a full century older than A Christmas Carol. It seems that in 21st-century Sacramento, Handel’s 18th-century music (and its relatives) wields more appeal than does Dickens’ 19th-century morality tale.

But, like all matters artistic, these conclusions are subject to change. Holiday shows based on Mexican culture—such as El Teatro Campesino’s annual shows at Mission San Juan Bautista in San Benito County, south of San Jose—have proven enormously popular with Bay Area audiences. However, that style has yet to make a substantial dent in Sacramento, despite the area’s growing Latino population.

Could a Mexican-based play like La Pastorela or La Virgen del Tepeyac become the next holiday mainstay here? It is entirely possible, and probably logical. America’s concept of the holidays, and what’s appropriate, is continuously updated through immigration and absorbed traditions from immigrations past—music, food and old stories—which is to say that when you celebrate Christmas in 2020 by seeing a performance, you probably won’t do it in the same way that you do this year.