Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Christmas Survival Guide at Harlequin

Reviewed by Alec Clayton

from left: Antonia Darlene, Christian Doyle, "Kenny" and Amy Shephard
Harlequin Production’s A Christmas Survival Guide offers a refreshing change in theatrical holiday fare. Billed as a light and upbeat musical comedy, this play by James Hindman and Ray Roderick with musical arrangements by John Glaudini is much more than that. (Note: I’m not sure how much of Glaudini’s arrangements are used in this performance. Pianist Brian Kinsella is also listed in the program as arranger, and I suspect he did a lot of it. Whomever gets the credit, there are musical arrangements of Christmas classics that are updated in marvelous ways.)

This show is a witty and insightful look at the good and the bad of the holiday season, and it is not all upbeat. There are some musical numbers in this show that are pretty dark, at least in part, and I found that refreshing in a perhaps odd way.

The show is part musical revue and part sketch comedy, mixing original songs with beloved Christmas carols to illustrate the book “A Christmas Survival Guide” by “Ted.” The “Survival Guide” is a kind of psychobabble self-help book designed to help people endure the incessant commercialism and irritating crowds of the season. Selections from the book are read in voiceover while three actor/singers illustrate them in song. The actors are Christian Doyle, Antonia Darlene and Amy Shephard. In addition to the three lead actors, Kinsella frequently interacts with the actors and occasionally steps away from his piano to become a part of the play, which he does with style and grace.

The performances by all three actors are highly polished. 

Darlene has been wowing South Sound audiences for years with her rich and soulful singing. Harlequin audiences remember her from Soul on Fire and Sixties Kicks. She has performed at Capital Playhouse and the 5th Avenue in Seattle, Village Theatre and the Seattle Opera. Her performance in this show is up to her best standards.

Doyle is also a local favorite as both comedic and dramatic actor and as a singer. He was outstanding in last summer’s Summer Session: Set in the ’70s. I expected an outstanding performance from him, and he didn’t disappoint. Doyle is at ease on stage and has the ability to convey volumes with the slightest gesture, and he is equally at ease with many difference signing styles from hard rock to folk to swinging jazz, all of which he demonstrates in Survival Guide. Shephard makes her Harlequin debut in this show. Locally she has performed with Olympia Family Theatre, Theater Artists Olympia and Animal Fire Theater. She is a ball of energy with a powerful voice and an expressive face. This threesome is well matched with no one overshadowing the others.

One of the more entertaining numbers in the first act was Doyle’s unique interpretation of “Silver Bells” wherein Christmas bells were conflated first with cell phones ringing — Doyle was forced to repeatedly interrupt his singing to answer the phone — and then with every other sound common to dense urban settings: cars honking, sirens, and so forth, until he can’t take it any longer. The sound effects and background music augmented Doyle’s singing and acting almost too well. The noise level was such that I had to remove one of my hearing aids, and everything sounded much better without it, indicating that the sound level was too loud. Ah, but what a great song that was and how inventive!

Also inventive was when Darlene came on stage as a disgruntled Mrs. Santa Claus wearing a Scotch plaid bathrobe and singing about how she can’t stand it when her husband goes gallivanting all over the globe every Christmas Eve. Sung in the style of a very angry German cabaret performer circa 1936.

And highly entertaining was when the trio sang a crazy version of the sleigh ride song with the horses pulling the sleigh faster and faster. This was insanely funny and well-acted. 

Darlene shone again on a brilliant version of “Drummer Boy” that was breathtaking and including a fabulous jazzy piano solo by Kinsella.

The band backing up this trio of singers is so outstanding that each band member deserves to the recognized. They are: Andrew Garness, drums; Rick Jarvela, bass; Brad Schrandt keyboards and horns, Daven Tillinghast, guitar, and Kinsella, piano.

You may never see another Christmas musical show with such an amazing blend of classical and original music and with singing by such a talented trio. 

WHEN: Thursdays through Saturdays, 8p.m., Sundays 2 p.m. through Dec. 16
WHERE: State Theater, 202 E. 4th Ave., Olympia
TICKETS: prices vary, call for details
INFORMATION: 360-786-0151

· Pay What You Can
Wed. Nov. 28 at 8pm
· Ladies’ Night Out
Fri. Nov. 30 at 7pm


Anonymous said...

I saw the musical on Sunday and loved the singing but miss having a story line, the larger cast, dancing, and the usual forties music. Looking at the audience, I see that most of them had white hair and probably remember the forties. I don't, but appreciate that era very much. It was my parents time. Also, I dislike the religion that was sung at me. It felt like a revival meeting. I don't think I would go again to the holiday show if it was the same. Sorry but you lost me.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely Loved the play! I would describe the voices as so rich and thick that I could cut the music with a knife and eat it as dessert! It was an excellent job. The band was of the finest quality. And the pianist... Ahh, the pianist. I thought that he interacted in such a beautiful way, blending with the rest of the cast...and the dude's jazz was out of sight. I'd love to know where he plays regularly. I think the whole show was much too short! And it is a Christmas show during the Christmas season so I knew what to expect. I saw it once and I'm going back again...with a friend! You guys did durned good work. Keep it up and kudos to the entire cast and musical group.