News » Cover Feature

Show, Ho, Ho!

A mixed bag of holiday plays brightens stages all over town. But it's not all visions of sugarplums.



Dave Landis in The Santaland Diaries
Ultimately, Christmas is about magic, joy, hope, peace, and goodwill," says Memphis actor/directorJohn Maness, explaining why he chose to take a rather nightmarish approach to his production of C.S. Lewis' allegorical fantasy The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (running in rep with The Santaland Diaries at Circuit Playhouse). "Theater can dramatize [our] struggle to attain those objectives," he adds, "and, if you shy away from that struggle, you can end up with Christmas pap that makes you sick of the holiday long before it has arrived."

Barry Fuller, a 50-year veteran of the Memphis stage, agrees with Maness, but only to a degree. After a 15-year hiatus from A Christmas Carol, Fuller has returned to Theatre Memphis to take on the iconic role of Ebenezer Scrooge. "[Charles] Dickens is so socially conscious and the way he captured, with so much detail, the poverty in [Victorian] England is just incredible. But if you make things too dark, I'm not so sure audiences want to see that."

Michael Holliday, who directed the daytime version of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever at Germantown Community Theatre, says, "[At Christmas] there is such a push for family entertainment." Meanwhile, Dave Landis, who stars as the acerbic gay elf in David Sedaris' contemporary classic The Santaland Diaries, heaps praises on his own show, claiming, "NO children, NO fairy dust, NO accordions. Now, THAT'S CHRISTMAS!!!"

If it sounds like local thespians are in complete disagreement as to what goes into making a good Christmas show, you are correct -- and that's the good news. From the old-time religion of Sanders Family Christmas to the black humor of The Santaland Diaries, there really is a little something for everyone to enjoy, even the worst humbugs among us. Here's what some of our finest performers are saying about their shows, their characters, and the holidays in general.

Some Like It Dark:

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Those who may have seen the tame (rhymes with lame) musical version of C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that ran at Circuit Playhouse off and on throughout the 1980s and 1990s may be surprised by the edginess of the current production. "People may be expecting the old cutesy-pie version," says director John Maness, who, in order to drive his point home, has placed one of the play's more sinister characters in a Nazi uniform, "but that is definitely not what I wanted to do with the show.The story was written and takes place in World War II England. There are, of course, the obvious Christian parallels with the Passion of Christ, which is in itself a dark-edged story, but there are also corollaries with WWII England and the threat of Nazi Germany. I wanted to show all of this, because it gives us a perspective of history [while it] illustrates a more timeless myth of the heroic journey."

LW&W tells the story of four children who have fled a besieged London for the safety of the English countryside. There, while playing a game of hide-and-seek, they stumble through an enchanted wardrobe and into a fantastical land inhabited by magical fairy-tale creatures. But things are far from paradisiacal. An evil witch has taken control of the otherwise peaceful world and executed a diabolical plan to make it always winter but never Christmas. If that sounds a little too much like the sugary stuff of a claymation special, you must consider that Lewis' battle scenes are graphic and bloody and that the story climaxes with a ritual sacrifice that would give even an Aztec priest the shivers. "[I'm not suggesting] that we should produce [Antonin Artaud's experimental] Jet of Blood and market it as a Christmas show," Maness says. "We just shouldn't be afraid to push the boundaries a little bit. Lewis wrote -- and I'm paraphrasing here -- that any children's story worth reading at 9 should also be worth reading at 49. I feel that way about children's theater as well. It should never be watered down. It's disrespectful of the sophistication that children possess."

Forever Young: Peter Pan is still flying

A pair of Pans at Playhouse on the Square.
If, as Maness suggests, children are so very sophisticated, that could be bad news for the cast of Peter Pan at Playhouse on the Square. After all, when it appears that Peter's sidekick, the fairy Tinkerbell, is on the verge of kicking the bucket, Peter begs the audience to make a declaration of faith. He asks them to say "Yes! I do believe in fairies. I do believe in fairies" until poor Tinkerbell finally comes back to life. It's a moment of theater that requires the kind of innocence that, as we are so often reminded in this post-Columbine world, appears to be in short supply. But, according to Playhouse company member Courtney Oliver, who shares the role of Peter Pan with Shani Alexander, "The kids always come through for us."

Oliver continues: "Even if the children are at that age where girls have cooties, and they are pissed off because Peter is a girl, and they want to see that stupid ball of light impale herself on Hook's hook ... Once one person says, 'Yes [I believe in fairies],' the rest will follow until everyone is cheering and clapping and they don't even know why. Funny how you never really have to teach the concept of 'suspension of disbelief.'It's already inherent in our natures, I guess."

"Naturally, there is maybe one [kid] in about every five shows who yells out, 'No, I don't believe in fairies,' just to get a laugh," Alexander adds. "But 'yes' always wins."

There is, of course, a less than happy back-story to this swashbuckling children's adventure. Peter Pan author James M. Barrie became a storyteller when he was only 6 years old. He did so to entertain his grief-stricken mother after her older son, David, died. The little boy who "never grew up" was a reinvention of Barrie's brother who would, in a very real sense, never grow up. Though none of this tragedy makes it into the often campy and overwhelmingly lighthearted musical, the show does have a melancholy streak. It reminds us that childhood things must someday be traded in for the responsibilities of adulthood.

"Our director, Shorey Walker, would say to us, 'This is poetry. You do realize that, don't you?'" Oliver says. "I believe that. I believe this play was written for the entertainment of children. I believe its lessons were meant for adults."

Speaking of Adults:

Thank goodness for The Santaland Diaries

The Santaland Diaries, which is running in rep with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe at Circuit Playhouse, is humorist David Sedaris' account of the time he took a job as an elf in Macy's Santaland, and in spite of what you may have heard, it's much more than just a bitter comic romp through the commercial tropes of the season. "Tonight, I saw a woman slap and shake a crying child [who would not get on Santa's lap]," says Sedaris' bewildered alter ego, Crumpet the Elf. And then he breaks your heart completely in two: "It's not about Santa, or Christmas, or snow, or anything," he says of Santaland. "It's a parent's idea of a world they cannot make work for them."

Sedaris shows us Christmas not as it could or should be but -- for better and worse -- as it is. It's the rare Christmas show that is entirely for grownups. And at a time of year when everything is sugar-coated for the kiddies, it's a breath of fresh air. It's also a show that rings especially true for most professional actors, who can relate to the poor guy in the elf suit, most of them having, at one time or another, been hired to dress up in an absurd costume (cell phone, superhero, chicken burrito, you name it) and prance around a mall.

"If I'd ever actually pranced around as a cell phone, I would be smart enough to never actually admit it to my family, friends, and respected journalists," says Landis."I suppose there was that one car commercial I did (and hopefully very few people actually saw) where I played the captain of the Titanic. My 30-second stint involved me cheerfully selling a distraught passenger on the idea that there were indeed much more reliable forms of transportation."

Of his experience with Santaland, Landis, who is often called upon to play characters twice his age, happily declares, "I actually get to play someone close to my own age and not have to wear Depends diapers under my costume in order to get the true essence of the character." He was clearly born to perform Sedaris' material.

The singing Sanders family brings a country Christmas to Circuit Playhouse.
The Gospel Truth: Getting happy with the Sanders family

The world was first introduced to the singing Sanders family in the Off-Broadway gospel musical Smoke on the Mountain. The unassuming show, which blended fiery preaching and cornball comedy with old-time mountain music, was a surprise success and spawned the sequel Sanders Family Christmas, which is showing along with Peter Pan at Playhouse on the Square. The action takes place in 1941 at a small Baptist Church in the Blue Ridge Mountains on the Christmas Eve following FDR's declaration of war against Japan. It is the Sanders family's last opportunity to sing together before they are separated by the war. It is also a fine opportunity to count blessings in the midst of tragedy. ASFC is a difficult script to perform because, although the playwrights have instructed the actors to treat their roles seriously, the material can quickly devolve into broad Southern fundamentalist stereotyping.

"That was a tough thing to get a grip on," says Kyle Barnett, who plays Stanley Sanders, a prodigal son of sorts who left the family gospel group to play country music in Nashville. "This show and these people are ripe for parody. Then again, that is such an easy and lazy choice. You really can't please everyone all the time. People come expecting total camp or complete reverence. I think we fit somewhere in the middle. Michael Duggan, our director, set it up perfectly when he told us, 'Don't try to be funny. The fact that these people are gospel-singing folks from the mountains who take themselves completely serious would provide all the comedy we need. Don't work for the laughs.' Turned out he was exactly right!"

Another thing that makes Sanders Family Christmas such a tricky production is that, unlike most musicals, the actors are called upon to play their own instruments. Not just piano and guitar either, but banjo, mandolin, and autoharp. "We kind of lucked out," Barnett says. "Most of us came into the rehearsal process being pretty adept at at least one instrument. I used to play the bass and cello professionally, so that helped out quite a bit, but I had to learn how to play the guitar, which to me was like learning Japanese. But I think we have done well and we certainly aren't faking anything."

A Perfect Fit:

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

Oh sure, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, a story about how the meanest kids in town get involved with the annual Christmas pageant, is cute enough, but in terms of name recognition it's not exactly A Christmas Carol or Peter Pan. So why does Germantown Community Theatre keep bringing it back year after year? For starters, they like it. Also, according to Michael Holliday, who directs GCT's somewhat shorter daytime version of the show, "It fits nicely on our [tiny] stage." GCT started producing the show in the late 1980s, switched to the musical revue A Christmas with the Cardigans in the mid-1990s, then switched back shortly thereafter.

"You make good money on these Christmas shows," Holliday says. "And when you bring them back, since you already have the sets and the costumes, you only have to pay for royalties and scripts." That said, Holliday admits GCT is entertaining the idea of finding another Christmas show at some point.

"[But The Best Christmas Pageant Ever] has a lot to offer," Holliday says. "You can bring the whole family out to see it."

The Classics:

Barry Fuller and A Christmas Carol

"They have certainly gotten a lot of mileage out of that set," says Barry Fuller, noting that Theatre Memphis has used the same basic scenery for A Christmas Carol for the past 25 years. Of course, considering that he's still doing several shows a year at the tender age of 75, the same might be said of Fuller.

"I went into this with more than a little trepidation," says the Australian-born song-and-dance man who last played Scrooge during the show's 10th anniversary run. "The last time I got through with this role, I swore, 'God as my witness, I'll never do it again.'"

It's hard to find fault with Dickens' ghost story even in its most watered-down form. And, according to Fuller, in spite of some noble attempts, not much has changed about TM's production during his 15-year absence from the show. "The look and feel is basically the same," he says. "We tried many new things. They just didn't materialize. Scrooge was supposed to fly. In fact, they did fly me, but they couldn't land me. There I'd be, hanging 18 feet in the air." So much for flying.

"But I'm here," he continues, "and I'm having just a lot of fun doing the physical comedy. And I'm finding all sorts of new things in the character. It's such a good feeling to know that at my age I can still get the mojo working. "

Keep the Flyer Free!

Always independent, always free (never a paywall),
the Memphis Flyer is your source for the best in local news and information.

Now we want to expand and enhance our work.
That's why we're asking you to join us as a Frequent Flyer member.

You'll get membership perks (find out more about those here) and help us continue to deliver the independent journalism you've come to expect.

Add a comment