Rudolph, Scrooge, Mulholland, Other Holiday Icons

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This year, many of LA’s biggest nonprofit theaters — Center Theatre Group, Geffen Playhouse, Pasadena Playhouse, A Noise Within — are producing or at least presenting holiday-specific productions. Last year, none of these companies did so.

A coincidence? A sign of a recovering economy? Or, as holiday shows are sometimes considered easy-to-sell cash cows, is it a sign of a still-ailing economy?

I’ll let others ponder those questions. Meanwhile, I’m here to tell you that of the five holiday-specific productions I saw during the past week at companies large and small, the brand-new contraptions from Center Theatre Group and the Geffen Playhouse can’t hold a Christmas or a Chanukah candle to the other three, which are at theaters with longer traditions of holiday entertainments.

I hesitate to dub one of these three the best, because they are so different from each other, but I’ll start with the two that opened this past weekend.

First, the LA theatrical holidays would be grim indeed without something from the Troubadour Theater Company at the Falcon. This year’s Troubie holiday stew blends the story line from the 1964 (and perennially re-run) animated TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer with the music of — The Doors.

Molly Alvarez, Matt Walker, Steven Booth, Beth Kennedy, Rick Batalla and Lisa Valenzuela in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReinDOORS”

Yes, the result is called Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReinDoors.

The Doors, one of LA’s seminal rock groups, first got together in 1965, about nine months after the first broadcast of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. A coincidence? I’ll let Matt Walker ponder that question.

Walker, of course, is the Troubies director, who’s blessed with the sort of creative mind that might well have taken note of that curious nine-month gap. In a program note, he quotes from William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” Walker clearly sees through somewhat wider chinks of his cavern than most of us do.

The lyrics of the classic Doors songs provide segues into the Rudolph story that are not only surprising but also surprisingly smooth. Of course, Rudolph (Steven Booth, a former Princeton from Broadway’s Avenue Q in his Troubie debut) is no conventional reindeer. His shiny nose sets him apart from his often disapproving neighbors, but it also endows him with a Cyrano-like charisma — he’s a rock star among the reindeer. You quickly stop wondering how the Doors could ever be a proper match for this story.

The Doors music, of course, propels the action forward with a sound and a beat that’s late ’60s, not mid-’60s. It’s the kind of music that the kids who first watched the cartoon in 1964 were obsessed with four or five years later. No offense to the original cartoon’s sound track, but it’s the Doors songs that provide the theatrical oomph that allows this mild-mannered TV show to explode all over a stage, especially when performed by Eric Heinly’s hot live band.

Steven Booth and Molly Alvarez

The individual actors unveil strong rock and roll voices, under the vocal direction of Rachael Lawrence. Probably the most dramatic vocal transformation comes from Kyle Nudo, playing the TV show’s elf who would prefer being a dentist. If he hasn’t already tackled the role of the crazy dentist in Little Shop of Horrors, someone should offer it to him soon.

This is also music you can dance to — and you’ve probably never seen deer dance like this, using Molly Alvarez’s precise choreography. But the entire production package is full of surprises — most notably, its representations of the TV show’s Abominable Snow Monster. Let’s just say that those who are squeamish about any kind of toilet humor might want to let those who appreciate funny toilet humor have the last remaining tickets to this show.

Sharon McGunigle’s costumes and Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting and Ameenah Kaplan’s aerial choreography create some dazzling effects. The entire production glimmers as brightly as Rudolph’s red nose.

 

Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReinDoors, Falcon Theatre, 4252 W. Riverside Dr., Burbank. Wed-Sat 8 pm, Sundays (and Sat Dec 22) 4 pm. Sundays Dec 16, 30 and Jan 6, 7 pm. Closes Jan 13, 4 pm. www.FalconTheatre.com. 818-955-8101.

***All Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReinDoors production photos by Chelsea Sutton

Also opening this weekend was A Noise Within’s new production of A Christmas Carol. The company last tackled the Dickens classic in 1999 (at the Luckman) and 2000 (in Glendale), but this is a very different production, and it looks lustrous in the group’s new Pasadena home.

Geoff Elliot, Brendan Haley, Deborah Strang and Georgia Miller in “A Christmas Carol.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Jeanine A. Ringer’s fluid set design furnishes a versatile canvas for not only the actors but also for some stunning lighting by Ken Booth and elaborately fanciful ghost costumes by Angela Balogh Calin. The new space’s small balcony is used as the anchor for the chains that have trapped Marley (Mitchell Edmonds). Ego Plum provides a solid score that occasionally veers close to being a musical. Elliott plays Scrooge and Robertson Dean serves as the stalwart narrator.

With no intermission and using barely 90 minutes, the staging by Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott feels lean and swift, in comparison to the other variations of the same story that I saw last week.  But it doesn’t feel hurried — the emotional undertow is strong, as is the implicit socio-political commentary.

A Christmas Carol, A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. This Thu 8 pm, Fri Dec 14 and 21 8 pm, Sat Dec 15 and 22 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun Dec 23 2 pm. www.anoisewithin.org. 626-356-3100.

Theatre of NOTE has revived its own holiday standard, A Mulholland Christmas Carol, which is almost Troubie-like in its mash-up of seriously dramatic material from LA history — the tragic saga of water engineer William Mulholland, the Owens Valley and the St. Francis Dam — with the narrative from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, accompanied by lots of singing and dancing.

Christine Breihan, Linda Graves, Trevor H. Olsen and Kirsten Vangsness in “A Mulholland Christmas Carol.” Photo by Darrett Sanders.

Bill Robens’ play is set during a Christmas season before the 1928 dam collapse that killed at least 500 people, just north of Los Angeles. Mulholland himself is the Scrooge figure, who’s visited by ghosts of Christmases past, present and future.

It’s an ingenious and rigorously local holiday production that creates much mirth on the surface while also drawing attention to the meat under its bones. But it doesn’t fit the tiny NOTE space nearly as comfortably as the Troubie action fills the Falcon, and it seems a bit more prolonged than necessary — perhaps in part because the quarters feel so cramped.

Once upon a time, Center Theatre Group pledged to bring promising shows from LA’s small theaters into the limelight at its Kirk Douglas Theatre. Mulholland would be a great example of the kind of a show that might be improved by such a move. A musical in which the Ghost of Christmas Present is none other than Theodore Roosevelt might feel right at home in a venue that presented the premiere of a musical about Andrew Jackson.

Ron West in “A Christmas Carol Twist Your Dickens!” Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Unfortunately, this year CTG decided to create a completely untested holiday show for the Douglas. And The Second City’s A Christmas Carol: Twist Your Dickens! flunked its test.

If that title looks ungainly, so does the show itself. Although it has a narrative skeleton based on the Dickens tale, it also departs from Dickens for the sake of several tepid comedy sketches. Lame attempts at improv based on audience suggestions don’t help. Staged complaints from a heckler in the balcony are all too accurate. At the performance I saw, the level of laughter never got far beyond a few polite titters. The talented cast appears to have been set adrift by writers Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort and director Marc Warzecha.

The Geffen’s new holiday show, Donald Margulies’ A Coney Island Christmas, is considerably better than CTG’s. Drawing on a Grace Paley short story, Margulies tells the tale of a Depression-era Jewish girl (Isabella Acres) in New York, who is called on to play Jesus in the school Christmas pageant, much to her mother’s distress. It’s set within the framework of a flashback from the perspective from the girl in her old age, living in LA in the 21st century, telling the story to her great-granddaughter.

Isabella Acres and Annabelle Gurwitch in “Coney Island Christmas.” Photo by Michael Lamont.

The script sometimes feels as if were constructed from a paint-by-numbers page, but it does provide opportunities for two school pageants — not only the Christmas show but also a Thanksgiving program in which the girl makes her acting debut as a turkey. Director Bart DeLorenzo’s cast — mostly talented young adults in real life — channel their more juvenile memories into a hilarious panorama of somewhat bored, somewhat curious, generally untalented kids who are bewildered by this thing called acting.

A Mulholland Christmas Carol, Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm. Closes with a Sunday matinee on Dec 23, 2 pm. www.theatreofnote.com. 323-856-8611.

 

The Second City’s A Christmas Carol: Twist Your Dickens!, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd, Culver City. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 6 and 9:30 pm, Sun 3 and 6:30 pm. Dark Dec 25. Closes Dec. 30. www.centertheatregroup.org. 213-628-2772.

 

A Coney Island Christmas, Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 and 8 pm, Sun 2 and 7 pm. Closes Dec. 30. www.geffenplayhouse.com. 310-208-5454.

Besides the instantly forgettable Twist Your Dickens!, Center Theatre Group is also presenting another play that’s set during the Christmas season. Opening last night at the Mark Taper Forum, Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities doesn’t really qualify as a holiday-specific production; its New York productions weren’t timed for the holidays. Still, a Christmas tree is in the living room of the wealthy Palm Springs family that includes all the characters, and the two adult children of the family are there in part because of the holidays.

Robin Weigert, JoBeth Williams and Robert Foxworth in “Other Desert Cities.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.

In Other Desert Cities, the unseen ghost of Christmas past is the third child of the Wyeth clan, a young man who is said to have killed himself after he was involved in a fatal terrorist bombing, decades ago. His sister (Robin Weigert) has returned to the West from her East Coast home in order to break the news to the family that her long-awaited second book isn’t a novel but instead is a memoir about her older brother — a revelation that infuriates her mother (JoBeth Williams) and less overtly disturbs her father (Robert Foxworth), a retired film actor and GOP bigwig.

The premise isn’t especially fresh. Watching Robert Egan’s workmanlike staging, I found that even Takeshi Kata’s sleek Palm Springs modernist living room and Lap Chi Chu’s desert sunsets in the background didn’t prevent me from thinking occasionally about A.R. Gurney’s The Cocktail Hour, in which a son returns home to his starchy parents to seek their permission to have his autobiographical play produced.

However, if I recall The Cocktail Hour correctly, Other Desert Cities has a much more dramatic secret waiting to be revealed after all the fairly predictable backbiting and recriminations, near the end of the second act.

Of course, I can’t reveal the secret here, but I found its revelation and the play’s subsequent resolution — or lack of a clear resolution — problematic. A final coda set six years later raises more questions than it answers, and Baitz’s play has the kind of talky but realistic style that makes me suspect that he really didn’t intend the degree to which the ending feels ambiguous.

The last Baitz play I saw, The Paris Letter (in its recent revival by Group Rep), is a much more fleshed-out and multi-dimensional play, with its political overtones much more gracefully integrated into the narrative.

Other Desert Cities, Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., LA. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2:30 and 8 pm, Sun 1 and 6 pm. Mon Dec 31, 8 pm. Dark Dec. 25. Closes Jan 6. www.centertheatregroup.org. 213-628-2772.

 

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Don Shirley

Don Shirley

Don Shirley writes about theater for LA Observed. He is the former longtime theater writer for the Los Angeles Times, LA Stage Times and other publications.