Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella “A Christmas Carol” is so internationally familiar that his miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is enshrined somewhere between Santa Claus and Dr. Seuss’ Christmas-stealing Grinch in the pantheon of holiday characters we see every December. It’s hard to escape film and theatrical recreations of the Victorian tale.
But that’s just what three actors in the Sierra Madre Playhouse’s upcoming production of “Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!)” strive to do. Written by Michael Carleton, Jim FitzGerald and John K. Alvarez, the family-friendly play presents three actors — Garrett Botts, Philip Rossi and Dale Sandlin — revolting against staging Dickens’ holiday perennial by attempting to perform every Christmas carol ever sung and every Christmas story ever told, with help from a colorful trove of props and costumes and pianist/musical director Sean Paxton, who is onstage with the actors during the 95-minute show.
“They do little sequences about how different countries celebrate Christmas, and some of the cartoons that came out — they do a little about almost everything that has to do with Christmas,” explains director Gary Lamb.
Eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon’s 1897 letter to the New York Sun and the editor’s legendary response (“Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus”) finds its place in the action, as do the Peanuts, Dr. Seuss, Macy’s Day Parade floats, fruitcake, Swedish lutefisk, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and many other Christmas standards. Lamb says they’ve been tweaking the 15-year-old play to incorporate contemporary references, and otherwise updating the script to create “a better, well-rounded evening.”
“I’ve taken stuff from the first act, put it into the second act, and added more of an improv feel to the beginning of the show with the cast chatting with the audience, and starting the second act with an improv game using the audience,” Lamb notes with a chuckle. “It’s a very interactive piece in a lot of ways.”
A lot rides on the actors, who are onstage the entire time. The constant back-and-forth dialogue and scene-shifting require high energy and sharp timing.
“In a normal play you’ll have scenes that will have an ebb and flow, and … one person’s thought will become another person’s response. But this is a lot of very short sketches around disparate holiday stories, both legends and semi–modern stories, which sort of pick up and drop off, page to page. That can be really difficult to string together,” observes Michigan-raised actor Rossi, who adds that the show feels like the “holiday version” of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s ““The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged.”
“In certain ways, in drama you can skate by on energy, but with comedy, especially a pseudo-farce like this, you have to run at it 100 percent or it just doesn’t work.”
Lamb was surprised to discover during rehearsals that not all the cast members were familiar with classics like “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” or the 1946 Frank Capra film that immortalized George Bailey, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“They sort of had an idea of what ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ was about, but they had no memory of the characters. Different households stopped sitting down and watching television, so they weren’t brought in to go, ‘Oh, the Charlie Brown Christmas special is on, we have to watch that!’”
Part of the fun of doing “Every Christmas Story Ever Told,” he says, is acquainting people with classics such as “Rudolph” and other 1960s-era Rankin/Bass stop-motion animated productions.
“Everybody has their own go-tos for Christmas,” Rossi says, referring to the individual traditions we all develop around films and books we grew up watching and reading. “The people who wrote this definitely tried to scour all the most famous ones. Not to mention there are a lot of Christmas-around-the-world facts. But I think I had seen ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ maybe once or twice before; I had to watch that and some old cartoons from the 1960s that weren’t part of my childhood Christmas but are featured in this play. It’s been educational.
“It’s a very fun play. It’s not a play you’re going to sit back and watch happen; it’s not Eugene O’Neill. You’re part of the play in some ways. So if you’re coming to the theater to take a nap, this is not the right one.”
“Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!)” previews at Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre, at 8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 5, holds its official opening at 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 6, and runs through Dec. 29; preview tickets are $20, remaining show tickets are $45/adult, $40/senior and $25/youth 21 and under. Box office: (626) 355-4318. sierramadreplayhouse.org