I missed the opening night performance of The American Century Theater's new production, An American Century Christmas, but I did catch a matinee last Sunday. I wish I had seen it earlier so that I could get the word out that this is a show worth seeing. (The run ends on January 4.)
The show is a musical revue done very much in the style of a TV variety show of the 1950s or '60s. (A format that has declined and disappeared, as noted by TACT's artistic director Jack Marshall in an audience guide for the show.)
I am hoping that, despite the midweek holiday, my review will appear in this week's edition of The Metro Herald. (If not, it will certainly be in the January 2 issue.) Here is a preview:
‘American Century Christmas’ Launches New Holiday Tradition
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor
Behold, we bring you tidings of great joy: This month, in the County of Arlington, a new Christmas tradition is born.
The American Century Theater (TACT), which since 1994 has been reviving great and obscure plays of the 20th century in a black-box theatre within Gunston Middle School, now brings us a delightful compilation of song and dialogue that traces the celebration of Christmas in America.
Conceived and compiled by TACT’s artistic director Jack Marshall, musical director Tom Fuller, and assistant director Kathryn Fuller, An American Century Christmas could – if the company wills it – become a Washington-area holiday tradition that can rival A Christmas Carol at Ford’s Theatre. (That story, by the way, is reduced to 90 seconds in TACT’s telling.)
Largely a musical revue, like those that peppered Broadway in mid-century, An American Century Christmas is family-friendly and audience-interactive. (Come prepared to answer Christmas trivia questions and be rewarded with a Tootsie Pop, with even more substantial prizes for children.)
A warm and welcoming set (designed by Trena Weiss-Null) looks much like the studio sets that hosted annual Christmas specials of the 1950s and ‘60s that featured Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Andy Williams, and many other singers and comedians who often brought out their families to join in the celebration. (One irony, of course, is that many of these “Christmas” specials, with principals and ensemble bundled up in sweaters and parkas, were taped far in advance, often in August in Los Angeles. The last of the Bing Crosby Christmas specials – the one where he performed a haunting duet with David Bowie – was produced in the summer and broadcast months after Crosby’s death in 1977.) Colorful costumes – with an emphasis on shades of red and green, of course -- by Rip Claassen add flavor and a note of nostalgia to the production.
Besides a plethora of Christmas songs, both secular and religious, An American Century Christmas includes dialogue scenes from It's a Wonderful Life, Earl Hamner’s The Homecoming (precursor of The Waltons), Miracle on 34th Street, and A Charlie Brown Christmas, with readings of The Littlest Angel and a poem by Edgar Guest, a musical number from The Dick Van Dyke Show (the episode known as “An Alan Brady Christmas”) and tuneful, thematic medleys -- for example, the Santa-oriented songs released annually for more than a decade by Gene Autry, and Jule Styne’s Broadway-style songs for Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol.
The cast even recreates, on stage, the radio satire “Green Chri$tma$” by Stan Freberg. In introducing the piece, however, they repeat the factoid that, while “Green Chri$tma$” was produced and released in 1958, because it was disliked by advertisers, the skit was never played on commercial radio until 1983. I can attest that this is untrue, because I heard it on WEMP-AM in Milwaukee no later than 1972; I even quoted it in a paper I wrote for my eighth-grade English class that year. That quibble aside, it was a pleasure to see Freberg’s biting and continuingly relevant send-up of holiday advertising reproduced today.
The magic of An American Century Christmas is that it holds the potential of being re-staged every year with minor changes so that it remains fresh for each new audience.
This is because the revue is written in a modular fashion. Scenes can be rearranged, removed, and inserted almost at will without harming the flow of the piece.
For example, the Gene Autry medley – which moves from “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” through “Up on the Housetop” to “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” – could be replaced with a medley of songs by Alfred Burt, who is represented later in the show with one of his “Christmas cards,” “Some Children See Him” and a brief sample of “Caroling, Caroling.”
No doubt the team of Marshall, Fuller, and Fuller hundreds of possible clips and musical manuscripts to come up with the show in its current form. No doubt many usable and entertaining items were filed away, regretfully, simply because adding them would make the show too long. (I think they gave short shrift to the Christmas songs that emerged from Broadway musicals, for instance, and could bring a few more forward in future productions.) No doubt these “leftovers” will fill a hundred nights over many Christmas seasons.
The ensemble cast does a terrific job in presenting the songs, often with a humorous twist. They relate to each other so smoothly that one might think they are members of the same family, gathered on Christmas morning to celebrate together. It would be unfair to single one out of the nine on stage (and one booming through the sound system), so here they are, as listed in the program: Ann DeMichelle, McCall Noelle Doyle, Kathryn Fuller, Bill Gordon, Adam Juran, Scott Kenison, Steve Lebens, Mick Tinder, Patricia Tinder, and Glenn L. White.
An American Century Christmas plays only through January 4 (when it will be replaced by Life with Father, whose run was interrupted for the holidays), so hurry to American Century Theater to celebrate Christmas with the cast and crew. Ticket information and showtimes can be obtained at www.americancentury.org.
Of course, if my prediction is true, you will be able to enjoy the tradition of An American Century Christmas for many, many years to come.
An American Century Christmas opened Wednesday, December 10, 2008, and runs through Sunday, January 4, 2009, at Theatre II, Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang Street, Arlington, Virginia 22206. Performances most weeks are Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8:00 p.m., with Saturday and/or Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m., and with additional weeknight shows during the weeks of Christmas and New years. More information is available at www.AmericanCentury.org or by calling the theatre at 703-998-4555 to order tickets.
The audience guide that was compiled by Jack Marshall includes an amusing item called "The Ten Least Successful Holiday Specials of All Time," by John Scalzi, which includes such titles as "An Algonquin Round Table Christmas," "The Mercury Theater of the Air Presents the Assassination of Saint Nicholas," and "A Muppet Christmas with Zbigniew Brzezinski." My personal favorite is this:
Ayn Rand’s A Selfish Christmas (1951)When you see the show, be sure to pick up a copy of the audience guide. It has information that adds depth and texture to the production; it is educational without being didactic, entertaining without being flip.
In this hour-long radio drama, Santa struggles with the increasing demands of providing gifts for millions of spoiled, ungrateful brats across the world, until a single elf, in the engineering department of his workshop, convinces Santa to go on strike. The special ends with the entropic collapse of the civilization of takers and the spectacle of children trudging across the bitterly cold, dark tundra to offer Santa cash for his services, acknowledging at last that his genius makes the gifts — and therefore Christmas — possible. Prior to broadcast, Mutual Broadcast System executives raised objections to the radio play, noting that 56 minutes of the hour-long broadcast went to a philosophical manifesto by the elf and of the four remaining minutes, three went to a love scene between Santa and the cold, practical Mrs. Claus that was rendered into radio through the use of grunts and the shattering of several dozen whiskey tumblers. In later letters, Rand sneeringly described these executives as “anti-life.”
Don't forget to check out the Christmas ornaments and greeting cards at my CafePress shop and the quirky gift ideas I posted at the start of the Christmas shopping season.