SALT LAKE CITY — Upon entering the theater at Pioneer Theater Company, the audience could be forgiven for wondering if they’d come to the wrong place. The stage appears dusty from neglect, covered with old lighting trees and props, sand bags and discarded scenery litter the stage. Rather than the breathless anticipation of an evening filled with song and dance about Christmas, there is an air of abandonment about the place. According to director Karen Azenberg‘s program note, the setting of It Happened One Christmas (conceived by Azenberg and Kenneth Jones) is “a shuttered old vaudeville house in downtown Salt Lake City, a place that might support multiple musical styles inspired by decades and decades of entertainment.” Indeed, the evening’s entertainment certainly drew on a century’s worth of Christmas songs, stories, dances, and traditions. there is something for everyone in this “extravaganza-style revue,” and if it leans heavily toward the family-friendly side of the potential audience, at least there is nothing to offend anyone in the audience, “kids, from 1 to 92.”
The selections of songs run the gamut, from old classics such as “The Christmas Song” and “Holly Jolly Christmas,” to newer takes on more familiar tunes, such as a beat box version of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” and a hip hop version of “Joy to the World” (which I didn’t think worked particularly well, though it was my nine-year-old theatre companion’s favorite). The evening also included a few songs I had never heard before, such as “Christmas” and “The Gift,” sung as solos by Maximillian Sangerman and Amanda Rose, respectively, with great heart and emotion. The opening number, called “Sparklejollytwinklejingley,” hails from a new Christmas favorite, Elf the Musical, and set the tone of the show as the “ghosts of performers past” tidied up and decorated the old stage in preparation for “something wonderful” that they’re hoping will happen before the night is through.
Not everything to do with the revue was a song to be sung, however. Interspersed among the high energy vocal offerings were readers’ theatre versions of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” told by various groupings of parents to their respective children. There was also a re-enactment of “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus,” the famous letter written by a little girl to the editor of the New York Sun newspaper, asking for his definitive answer to the age-old question of whether Santa Claus exists. There was even a recitation of the birth of Jesus Christ in a stable in Bethlehem, as found in the New Testament.
Azenberg certainly knows how to stage a huge holiday spectacle, but she is also an accomplished choreographer, as evidenced by two all-dance numbers included in the program. The familiar tune “Linus and Lucy” (from A Charlie Brown Christmas) accompanied a group of dancers playing in the snow with huge snowballs and a snowman who comes to life, and the aforementioned beat box version of the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” was staged as a giant sleepover. Both were well-done and very entertaining, pieces of choreography.
The cast was roughly split up into three groups of performers: the adults/parents/various grown ups who seemed to be mostly singers, led by Howard Kaye as the erstwhile stage manager; a group of young adults who bore the task of most of the heavy dance numbers; and an ensemble of 10 children who brought in the kid-friendly component. The children’s ensemble was represented most often by Mila Belle Howells, who interacted with Howard the most and got a lot of mileage out of tyrannically stomping around the stage and yelling about sponsors and time constraints. Cute little girl, not a very cute character.
Vocally, music director/conductor Tom Griffin did an impressive job with this cast. They sang in beautiful harmony, in a variety of vocal and choral styles. Every cast member was strong and confident in their parts. As a special homage to Salt Lake City, the lyrics to “Here We Come a Caroling” were rewritten specifically for the local audience, making mention of many popular Utah tourist spots. Another stand out aspect of the production was the seemingly unending stream of elaborate sets and costumes that continued to parade out of the wings with every new scene. Scenic designer George Maxwell pulled out all the stops. Each set was bigger and more grand than the last, and I completely lost count of the number of Christmas trees used onstage: large trees, small trees, decorated trees, snow covered trees , little ones and a 30 footer that rose from the floor. Costume design by K. L. Alberts kept pace with the size and scale of the sets. Each scene was color-coordinated and appropriate to the time period of the piece. It is clear that no expense was spared in this Christmas revue.
As described at intermission by the audience member seated behind me, this production plays “like a Hallmark Christmas card with a soundtrack.” It Happened One Christmas is wrapped with bright paper and tied up with a giant tinselly bow. Local audiences will enjoy it, as long as they aren’t looking for anything too deep or profound. It is simply a feel-good, brightly lit, greeting card of a show, appropriate for families of all ages. Bring along your singing voices for an interlude of audience participation, and keep your eyes peeled for that “special something” that just might appear before the end of the night.
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night, indeed.