‘People of Color Christmas’ a witty and aware holiday tradition

Christine Hoang is something of a rarity among Austin playwrights: a creator of modernist, narrative dramas in the tradition of O’Neil, Miller and Williams. Her work eschews postmodern tricks and instead focuses on slow character-building and nuanced relationships, with a slam poem or musical number occasionally thrown in here and there to liven things up. Her “A Girl Named Sue” won the Austin Critics Table Award for best new play, and this holiday season she’s bringing back an older work, “People of Color Christmas,” that takes a woke look at Christmas through the lens of a truly multicultural cast of characters.

The first thing that makes “People of Color Christmas” unique is its producing partner. The show is a co-production between Color Arc Productions and City of Austin Parks and Recreation, Museums and Cultural Programs Division, meaning that it is actually a city of Austin event. As a result, each weekend the play has been presented at a different cultural center. Thus far it has appeared at the Asian American Resource Center and the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center. In its final weekend it will be at the Dougherty Arts Center. Tickets are free; though most performances are currently listed as sold out throughout the final weekend, organizers say that thus far everyone who has come to the show on the wait-list has been admitted to the performance.

Beyond the interesting production partnership, “People of Color Christmas” is also notable for being a remounting. Originally produced at Ground Floor Theatre in 2015 as “People of Color Christmas: The White Elephant in the Room,” it was Hoang’s first play. Now, with a few years’ more experience, she has rewritten about half of the dialogue and worked with dramaturg Ashley Jernigan and director Rudy Ramireze to tighten and heighten the play’s theatrical experience.

In its current form, “People of Color Christmas” feels like a television sitcom Christmas special whose well-drawn cast of comedic characters are culturally sensitive about how being a person of color impacts their lives even during the holiday season. Of particular note are Allegra Jade Fox as Sasha and Lillie Lopez as Gabby, whose duel emotional arcs provide the show’s loose narrative structure, and Ryan Darbonne as Daniel, a gay black man who eschews all stereotypes to exist as a unique, individual character (complete with show-stopping original hip-hop number). The cast members are almost all seasoned improv performers, which adds an element of spontaneity to the show, as ad-libs foster legitimate laughs from castmates that help to consolidate the characters’ friendships.

The play is very funny at the same time as it is culturally aware, and both of these aspects work best when they are in harmony with one another. Hoang’s sense of humor in the writing is strongest when it is addressing particularly difficult issues, like cultural appropriation and the linguistic nuances of political correctness. Similarly, she handles these thorny issues the most powerfully through her wit. When the two diverge is when the play hits its lower points, either becoming overly silly or overly preachy.

Even in these few moments, though, “People of Color Christmas” retains its most important characteristic — its heart. This is one feel-good holiday special that doesn’t rely on tired clichés about “good will towards man” and instead embraces everyone in the audience, regardless of gender, sexuality, color, ethnicity, or religion.

“People of Color Christmas”
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. Saturday
Where: Dougherty Arts Center, 1110 Barton Springs Road
Cost: Free; registration required at pocchristmas.eventbrite.com
Information: 512-974-3772, austintexas.gov/event/people-color-christmas

‘A Miracle on 34th Street Classic Radiocast’ is charming, if old-fashioned, Christmas treat

Writer/director George Seaton’s “A Miracle on 34th Street” (based on a story by Valentine Davies) was hardly destined to become a Christmas classic when it was released in June 1947. For one thing, it was, well, released in June, and the advertising tried to hide the fact that it was a Christmas movie about a nice old man who plays Santa Claus for Macy’s and who just might be the actual Kris Kringle. However, the movie’s naïve charm and strong performances by Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn and a young Natalie Wood won over audiences, and it became a perennial holiday favorite.

Contributed by Kimberley Mead

Round Rock’s Penfold Theatre has taken this Christmas classic and turned it into a unique performance that’s part stage play and part radio show, calling the hybrid “A Miracle on 34th Street Classic Radiocast.” The adaptation by Penfold co-founder Nathan Jerkins (with a prologue and spoofy commercials added by director Monica Ballard) turns the story into a radio show performed live before the audience’s eyes at the fictional station KPNF.

The strength of this production lies in its old-fashioned charm. The show is very well cast, with an array of actors whose voices adapt to the various characters they portray. While Sarah Marie Curry, Nathan Jerkins, Julie Linnard and Isto Barton take on a number of different roles that play to their vocal talents in a number of amusing ways, the strongest performance comes from Robert L. Berry, who only serves as one character throughout — Kris Kringle himself. In the spirit of Edmund Gwenn and Richard Attenborough, who played Kringle in the two film versions of the story, Berry’s warmth and charm embody the heart of the character, creating a realistic Kringle who doesn’t veer into a parody of our traditional ideas about Santa.

The entire show plays into the nostalgic aspect of the story and its evocation of the classic film. From the location itself, in the agreeably communal Old Settler’s Hall, to the sumptuous look of the set and costumes (designed by Desi Roybal and Glenda Wolfe, respectively), everything about “Miracle” screams of a simpler era.

The weaknesses of the show, however, also stem from this nostalgia. The play is a little too faithful to the screenplay, leading to a lot of expository dialogue and not enough use of the unique format (which features live sound effects). In addition, the story’s message — summed up by the line that “faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to” — may work in the context of a 1947 Christmas film, but in an era of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” it feels hopelessly outdated at best and downright dangerous at worst. There is certainly value to the concept of faith, but it would have been nice to see it updated to reflect modern concerns that also recognize the necessity of a dash of common sense, even within the most faithful.

“A Miracle on 34th Street” is, in a phrase, “old time-y,” which is at the core of both its charm and its failings. If you’re looking for a pleasant holiday escape into a rose-tinted vision of nostalgic white Christmases past, though, it will hit the spot.

“A Miracle on 34th Street Classic Radiocast”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Dec. 23
Where: Old Settler’s Hall, 3300 E. Palm Valley Blvd., Round Rock
Cost: $23-$25
Information: penfoldtheatre.com

Jane Austen meets charming Christmas comedy in latest from Austin Playhouse

If Jane Austen and Richard Curtis (writer/director of “Love Actually”) were to collaborate on an original story, it would look an awful lot like Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon’s “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.”

Jess Hughes and Stephen Mercantel star in “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.” Contributed by Austin Playhouse

Playing through Dec. 23 at Austin Playhouse, “Miss Bennet” is an utterly charming unofficial sequel to “Pride and Prejudice” that takes place a few years after the conclusion of the classic novel. Because it is written specifically for the stage, though, it takes the form of a drawing room comedy of manners that is entirely contained within an actual drawing room.

The story follows the Bennet sisters as they spend Christmas at Pemberley, the estate of Mr. Darcy, the novel’s romantic lead. While older sisters Elizabeth and Jane are both now happily married, their middle sister, the brainy and well-read Mary, remains single and resigned to her future life as a spinster. Enter Lord Arthur de Bourgh, a cousin of Mr. Darcy who has recently come into his own estate and whose own bookwormish tendencies quickly endear him to Mary, and vice versa.

Traditional romantic comedy antics soon follow, with Mary and Arthur needing to overcome both Mary’s flirtatious younger sister Lydia and a designing woman from Arthur’s past. Though the plot is extremely predictable, that actually adds to its charm. The play delights from start to finish with warm, heartfelt comedy that never gets too dark nor too serious, thanks in large part to the cast of Austin Playhouse regulars.

Jenny Lavery, Stephen Mercantel and Marie Fahlgren in “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.” Contributed by Austin Playhouse

Jess Hughes, as the titular Miss Mary Bennet, is pitch-perfect as the somewhat dour heroine who remains utterly likeable even within her deepest doldrums, and her chemistry with Stephen Mercantel’s shy and bumbling Arthur de Bourgh is adorable without becoming cloying. As Mary’s three sisters, Jenny Lavery, Marie Fahlgren and Maria Latiolais all shine with varying degrees of sororal bickering and affection.

Perhaps the unexpected highlight of the production is the comedic interplay of Samuel Knowlton as Mr. Darcy and Zac Thomas as Charles Bingley, two of the Bennet sisters’ husbands, whose scenes together take on an almost vaudevillian shine. Though somewhat removed from the heart of the narrative, the pair steal quite a few scenes as they play the Victorian vision of gentlemanhood against contemporary notions of masculinity.

Director Lara Toner Haddock and her design team — costume designer Buffy Manners, lighting designer Don Day, sound designer Joel Mercado-See and set designer Mike Toner — focus on realism here, with rich period costumes and a sumptuous set, accentuated by bright pops of color and mood-setting music and sound cues.

“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” is a sweet, good-natured piece of escapism, and it just may provide the little bit of warm holiday cheer you might find yourself needing during a very hectic month.

 

“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through Dec. 23
Where: 6001 Airport Blvd.
Cost: $16-$36
Information: austinplayhouse.ticketleap.com/miss-bennet

 

‘The Nutcracker’ and “Drowsy Chaperone’ holiday tidbits

Ballet Austin’s “The Nutcracker” and the University of Texas’ “The Drowsy Chaperone” will be well worth your entertainment time this coming week. Here’s a taste of two articles about the shows.

 

The corps de ballet dance through a snowy “Nutcracker” scene in 2016, with Constance Doyle up front. Contributed

READ FULL “NUTCRACKER” STORY.

They come and go so quickly.

Oh, sure, some lucky ballet dancers manage to extend their careers for decades. Others happily switch to congruent creative roles at a convenient age. But just when you think you’ve identified all the major players in Ballet Austin — which opens its holiday treat, “The Nutcracker,” on Dec. 8 — myriad new faces joins the familiar ones onstage.

Already this season, veteran ballet watchers have noted a spate of younger talent on the Long Center stage. Now you can catch all of them through Dec. 23 because, for “The Nutcracker,” it’s all feet on deck.

PHOTOS: Ballet Austin’s ‘The Nutcracker’ through the years

Often a major role will be played by multiple dancers over the course of a long run. Watch for the relative newcomers during the Christmas party scene in Act 1, or dancing through snowflake magic as part of the corps de ballet later in the same act, or playing featured roles during the divertissements — the always diverting specialty dances — in Act 2. And elsewhere.

Some of these dancers are newly minted members of the main company; others serve in Ballet Austin II, the group’s farm team, as it were.

Now, we are not talking about the darling tots who hide under Mother Ginger’s huge skirt or play with gifts while teasing each other during the party sequence. These are professional dancers who have more recently come into the spotlight. Let’s introduce a few …

Natasha Davison (choreographer, center) and Nick Mayo (director, right) during rehearsals for “The Drowsy Chaperone” at the University of Texas. Contributed by Lawrence Peart

READ FULL “DROWSY CHAPERONE” STORY.

A show within a show, “The Drowsy Chaperone” tests the limits of the musical genre. On one level, it is a celebration of the giddy often mindless musicals of the 1920s. On another, it is a sharp critique of the stereotypes and cultural shorthand of the day.

As such, it makes an ideal candidate for a college musical theater program like the one at the University of Texas that, despite some high points, did not work out and will suspend operations — while Texas State University ramps up its efforts — with this carefully chosen material, while continuing to probe the history of theater for all its shifting meanings.

We asked director Nick Mayo about the musical that plays Dec. 6-10 at the Payne Theatre. Getting into the 1920s spirit of the show, he sent us some telegraphic notes.

Warning: The plot is ridiculously complicated. You see, a musical theater fan called Man in Chair introduces a show within a show called “The Drowsy Chaperone” about a mixed-up wedding that includes gangsters, mistaken identities and exotic locales, all of which infiltrate the Man in Chair’s apartment …