12/21/2019 CHRISTMAS CANTEEN 2019 Aurora Theatre
REVIEWING THE REVUE (AGAIN)
As in years past, let me see how much of my “template” for this holiday perennial I can self-plagiarize before the differences hit the snow blower (as if such a thing will ever again be needed in Georgia). To be honest, there were a few choices this year that tempered my normal enthusiasm, but it’s the time of year to indulge in a generosity of spirit, so I’ll put a lid on my quibbles, and stow them away for the year.
For the 24th year, Lawrenceville’s Aurora Theatre has put together a holiday revue it likes to call its Christmas Canteen. At times structured like a 60’s era variety show (think “Carol Burnett” or “Smothers Brothers”) and at others like a 40’s era USO canteen, it combines pop hits (*) from different eras in semi-thematic blocks, seasons with plenty of seasonal favorites, sticks it together with some plotless banter and delivers it tied in a bow for the holidays. This is the who-can-remember?-nth (non-consecutive) year I’ve seen it, and, it was just as much fun as ever. This is a delightful show that bristles with talent and energy, and even offers a nostalgic wallow in the sort of entertainments that filled the TV-scapes of my youth.
I have to confess I enjoy this plotless approach far more than the sort of forced narrative that ruined my enjoyment of revues like Five Guys Named Moe and 1940’s Radio Hour. The performers (mostly) play themselves and blithely disregard the period tropes that would ground the production in a
single era. It’s as if the history of holiday music is the sandbox, and the songs are the toys we all get to play with. That the show changes from year to year will make this one to look forward to in the future.
A marvelous cast consisting of Galen Crawley, Brianne Knights, Jimi Kocina, Chani Maisonet, Haden Rider, Scott Rousseau (channeling Santa himself), Cecil Washington Jr, and Meg Johns (with an occasional assist by very-talented interns Conner Kocks and Kristen Talley) are all in fine voice and fit-as-a-fiddle physicality, combining simple dance steps with right-as-rain posture and gesture to convey a motley crew of characters and situations. David Rosetti’s choreography fits like a Christmas Stocking and nary a step seems to be misplaced.
I was also glad to once more see Music Director Ann-Carol Pence add a solo of her own. Once more, she proves she can walk-the-tune as well as talk-the-melody. In general, for a musical revue such as this, you expect the highest standard from behind the piano/baton, and, as usual, Ms. Pence delivers.
This year’s set (by Julie Ray), supposedly Santa’s North Pole workshop, is simply spectacular. It bears a striking resemblance to last year’s ski lodge, with dizzyingly high walkways and cathedral-tall ceilings. Last year’s massive back window has been replaced by an enormous clock, ticking off the months until Christmas, and proves a fitting “screen” for Milton Cordero’s many projections. As with last year, the first segment allows the cast to decorate the set, bringing an already gorgeous set to gloriously holiday-centric light and color.
As before, the evening is divided into segments, beginning with the aforementioned “Decorate the Set” sequence, then segueing smoothly into a block of cast “Christmas favorites.” Act Two begins with a surprisingly entertaining audience-participation “Twelve Days of Christmas,” then soon dives into the traditional Armed Forces block, complete with the traditional "Salute to Veterans" call-out to the audience. It all concludes with more Christmas favorites. This year ended with an energetic “Turkey Lurkey Time,” which, for me, was a pale disappointment compared to the tried-and-true high-energy "Winter Wonderland" (okay, maybe I’ll share one of my quibbles).
I had many favorite moments this year, including an exquisitely rapturous “O Holy Night” duet from Mr. Rider and Mr. Washington, whose voices blended perfectly in ethereal harmony. I also liked the high-energy “Sparklejollytwinklyjingley” (from “Elf”), Ms. Crawley’s “Hanukkah Blessing,” Ms. Maisonet’s “Santa Baby,” and the opening Sleigh Ride / Train Ride medley.
This has always been a joy for me, and, I dare presume, for anyone who loves music, who loves spectacle, and who loves wallowing in the tuneful joys of the season. Christmas Canteen remains one of my holiday favorites, and, I suspect, will continue to do so for many years to come.
-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #ATCanteen2019)
(*) To be honest, like last year, “pop hits” have been relegated to the 1940’s USO segment, and the rest of the show is (almost) pure Christmas delight. Which suggests I should re-write this entire paragraph. And yet, there it remains …