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Wednesday August 20th 2014

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Christmas Plays Offer Holiday Get-Togethers

Comedies, Spirits and Hoodlums Dot Theatre Calendars
By Barry Shuck

The Christmas season is about families, old recipes, credit card abuse, decorations, that creepy fruit log thingy, traditions, and the birth of Christ. Usually the household is besieged with out-of-town guests who stay just long enough to be annoying, create laundry, think of your house as their annual vacation, and eat all of your reserve Slim Jims.

Thankfully, the Pensacola area has plenty of things to do this time of year, and one event that is sure to please families is the various Christmas plays on tap.

“In watching a Christmas play, the audience and the performers bond in an event,” stated Rodney Whatley, director of theatre at Pensacola State College. “So seeing a Christmas play is like watching a Christmas parade, only you get to know everyone in the parade and you watch it tell you an inspiring story.”

In Pace, Panhandle Community Theatre (PCT) is offering the hilarious play “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” The story centers upon six hellacious children named the Herdmans. All six are despised, feared, unavoidable and most importantly—delinquents.

“These children actually never heard the story of Jesus’ birth,” said director David Cook. “And when they finally do, their interpretation is unconventional. The end result is to help them find out what Christmas is all about.”

The Herdmans—the meanest kids in town, and among the poorest—arrive at the local church after being told it was a place that gave away first-rate snacks to anyone who asked. They are subsequently cast in the annual Christmas Pageant. Church members protest vehemently about these offspring of Satan amidst the sanctity of the story of Christ’s birth. This creates numerous odd and wacky situations which have entertaining results.

“The Herdmans are cool, but mean at the same time,” added cast member Laury Capshaw, age 12. “But these kids will actually touch the audience as they learn about the birth of Jesus.”

The Herdmans steal, smoke cigars and are rude. They take over the pageant and bully everyone—including the director—but the spirit of Christmas takes over with a festive message. With few adult roles, the PCT cast is chock full of children. The entire script leans toward funny situations and the different ways people celebrate the holidays. This story was adapted into a television movie in 1983 starring Loretta Swit.

“A Christmas Carol,” written by Charles Dickens, is the definitive Christmas story of greed, holiday traditions, spooks and unselfishness. Fortunately for the Florida Panhandle, this play is also a staple production at the University of West Florida.

“This is a timeless story,” said Kevin P. Kern, assistant professor of performance at UWF. “But the story itself goes beyond what transcends the Christmas spirit. It reminds all of us of kindness and the joy of life.”

In case you have been in a coma for the past century, the storyline centers upon a crotchety old man named Ebenezer Scrooge who is a greedy, uncaring miser, devoid of kindness or compassion. Money is his life’s passion. On Christmas Eve, he is visited by his deceased business partner Jacob Marley, who illustrates Scrooge’s surly ways and warns him to seek immediate change. He then tells Scrooge that three ghosts will pay him a visit in the hopes of achieving his transformation.

Scrooge’s lone employee is Bob Cratchit, whose youngest son Tiny Tim is dying of an illness. The only compassion Scrooge ever shows Cratchit is to remind him that he is still employed. He even commands that Cratchit work on Christmas Eve.

The three ghosts do indeed visit Scrooge in the coming hours and are a delight to see through UWF’s proficient costume designs. The “Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come” is an expertly designed spook of demonic assertion.

Kern acknowledged that “A Christmas Carol” has been presented every December at UWF since 2007. “We want to offer our community something that we hope is considered a tradition,” he said. “Parents know that this classic story is a place to take the guests who want something special to do during the holidays.”

“The disappointments Scrooge faces are universal,” Whatley added. “He is seduced by the pleasures of this world. We all are redeemed along with him because he represents our weaknesses.”

Dickens’ story is one of the single greatest influences in rejuvenating the old Christmas traditions in the United States and Europe. Fifteen films have been made of this classic tale with the first produced in 1908 as a silent movie. One of the most famous film adaptations is “Mickey’s Christmas Carol,” a 24-minute animated short by Walt Disney. In addition, “A Christmas Carol: The Musical” ran on Broadway for many years.

Pensacola Little Theatre also has a tradition in that every season a Christmas production is included in their lineup. This year is no exception with the musical play “Madeline’s Christmas.”

“Going to a holiday show together can be a special occasion and become part of family holiday memories,” said Dr. Stephen C. Lott, chair of Treehouse Theatre at PLT. “They come to our shows every year because they feel that it puts them in the right Christmas spirit.”

This memorable story is set in Paris where 12 young girls live in an old house covered with vines. The main character, Madeline, is a precocious French lass who turns the city upside down with her lovable exploits.

“Madeline is very nice and caring, but she is also more adventurous and matter-of-fact than the other girls,” explained Kylie Branch, age 13, who plays the part of Madeline. “Most of the audience has grown up reading the book. Seeing the story on stage will bring the book to life.”

The story unfolds with Christmas Day approaching, and suddenly 11 of the little girls become ill with the flu—all except for Madeline. Then on Christmas Eve, a mysterious merchant delivers a dozen rugs. The merchant decrees that Christmas is the time of miracles, and that his delivery is not just ordinary rugs. Soon everyone wakes up feeling healthy and revived, and it is revealed that the mats are magic rugs capable of flight that can take each child home in time for the holidays.

“I believe that this sort of show will be quite different for many people. It is a very fast musical with lots of energy,” stated director Johnnie Odoms. “All 12 little girls are onstage for virtually the entire play. Hopefully the result will be a very seamless experience that evokes wonder and joy.”

One of the wonderful aspects of this play is that the part of Madeline is not the only significant role. There are a lot of terrific parts for young female performers. The show is filled with magnificent songs and dances and it should be interesting to see the actors soar around the stage on flying carpets. There is a lot of heart in this simple story and a fair amount of Christmas enchantment as well.

Other cast members include Megan Shoultz, Trinity Aaker, Marian Hamilton, Danielle Nye, Kathleen Hicks, Caroline Bond, Lydie Hamilton, Lucy Waters, Eliza Eligio, Kalyn Patterson, Nami Talbot, Allison Bauder, Eva Ernst, Sophia Slobodian, Bianca Phillips and Victoria Allen.

“Often, children delight in creating theatre magic without any true obstacles,” offered Lott. “And they are enthusiastic hard workers. With Treehouse Theatre at PLT, we have found that family classics are the best received.”

“These plays make everyone who watches glad to be alive, and best of all, makes all of us want to go out and enjoy the best parts of Christmas,” Whatley concluded.

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PANHANDLE COMMUNITY THEATRE PRESENTS
“THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER”
WHEN:  7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, December 3-5, and 10-12
WHERE: Storage Masters Center, 4636 Woodbine Road, Pace
COST: $12
DETAILS: panhandlecommunitytheatre.com, or 221-7599

UWF DEPARTMENT OF THEATRE PRESENTS
“A CHRISTMAS CAROL”
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, December 2-5, and 9-12
WHERE: UWF Mainstage Theatre, 11000 University Parkway, Building 82
COST: $16 adults, $12 seniors and active military, $10 non-UWF college students, $5 other students, UWF students free
DETAILS: uwf.edu/theatre/backstage, or 857-6285

PENSACOLA LITTLE
THEATRE PRESENTS “MADELINE’S CHRISTMAS”
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, December 10-12, and 17-19
WHERE: Pensacola Cultural Center, 400 S. Jefferson St.
COST: $10-$20
DETAILS:  pensacolalittletheatre.com, or 432-2042