Jingle all the Way

Theater decks the halls with classic radio and a world-premiere adaptation

Thursday, Nov. 17, 2005

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Bill Ryan⁄The Gazette
From left: Lisa Tkac, Sarah Melinda, Tina Vogtman, and Cerissa McKinley rehearse for Way Off Broadway Dinner Theatre’s ‘‘An Old Fashioned (Radio) Christmas” opening Friday.

As the wind continued to sweep down the plains in the closing weeks of Way Off Broadway’s ‘‘Oklahoma,” offstage, snow began to fall – in song, at least, and in the minds of theater regulars. And while Wilbur pontificated and Charlotte spun her last web, the cardboard chimney was being prepped and holly was, indeed, hauled out.

Christmas had come, once again, to Way Off Broadway – smack in the middle of September.

Over the years, holiday programming has become as synonymous with Way Off Broadway as the dinner theater’s cream of crab soup.

Last year, the Christmas spirit – three of them, actually – graced the aisles in ‘‘Ebeneezer,” a Frederick-focused re-imagining of ‘‘A Christmas Carol.”

This year, noted Way Off Broadway vice president Justin Kiska, emphasis was placed on good, old-fashioned variety, akin to the televised celebrity Yule tides of yesteryear, or, more to the point, classic radio broadcasts.

Audiences will be transported back to the days before DVD when the theater’s mainstage production, ‘‘An Old Fashioned (Radio) Christmas,” opens this weekend.

Not to be upstaged, The Children’s Theatre will debut its holiday offering – a first not only for Way Off Broadway, but for the world – a stage adaptation of Robert Barry’s classic Christmas tale, ‘‘Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree.”

Holiday frequency

‘‘We’re going back to the old fashioned, straight music variety program,” said Kiska of ‘‘An Old Fashioned (Radio) Christmas.”

Coming to you live from station WWOB, the production follows on-air festivities throughout Christmas Eve and Day broadcasts, but, of course, Kiska said, ‘‘everything that could go wrong, does.”

‘‘There are going to be a lot of laughs,” he said. ‘‘The cast is having a blast.”

Featuring a who’s who of Way Off Broadway familiar faces like Steve Steele, Keith Purtee and Tina Vogtman, among several others, the team has spent many holidays together on stage.

‘‘It’s always fun to have people come back for Christmas,” Kiska said.

Culled from a virtual cavalcade of Christmas memories, the program will feature annual favorites, from an Act I culmination with a reading of the Nativity to frolicking elves.

Most importantly, for any radio station, the show’s music will feature a grandiose collection of Christmas cheer to rival even the best compilations of Time Life.

‘‘It’s all of the music everyone has grown up with. Everything you can think of is in there, from ‘Deck the Halls’ to ‘White Christmas.’”

The cast has been in rehearsal for the last four weeks. Have they had their fill of fa-la-las?

‘‘It’s a running joke that Christmas is a very bitter time at Way Off Broadway. We’re always saying that it feels like we’re working in a department store,” Kiska said. ‘‘But seriously, we bring out the best in each other... Everyone in the show really loves the holidays. Of course, when you start rehearsing in September, it certainly does prolong the season.”

Willowby unplugged

The Muppets are a tough act to follow.

But the Way Off Broadway Children’s Theatre is up to the task.

Yes, Jim Henson’s creature shop is credited with the previous adaptation of Robert Barry’s classic children’s book, ‘‘Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree,” turning out a 1995 television special starring Robert Downy Jr., Leslie Nielson, and Kermit the Frog.

Way Off Broadway, however, has the market cornered where the world of theatre is concerned.

Its ‘‘Willowby” will be the first full-length staged performance in the world – ever. (Years ago, according to the author, a version popped up in an anthology.)

‘‘It’s also the first time we’ve ever collaborated with a current author,” said Susan Thornton, director of the Way Off Broadway Children’s Theatre. ‘‘All of our other shows have been based on classic fairy tales.”

Barry, she said, was thrilled at the prospect of having his cherished book – first published in 1963 – produced for the stage.

‘‘I always remembered this book from my childhood, but I couldn’t find it anywhere in my collection,” Thornton said. ‘‘Then Robert explained that, years ago, they used to read it every Christmas on Captain Kangaroo – and I said, ‘That’s it! That’s how I remember.’”

Many recall the story of Mr. Willowby, whose trimmed treetop begets trimmed treetop begets trimmed treetop, providing everyone from the maid to the mice with a little Christmas cheer.

A cast of five brings Barry’s book to life, complete with all of the forest denizens – from rabbits to foxes to bears.

‘‘Each play at least three different parts,” she said. ‘‘They’re continually changing costumes, which was something we had to keep taking into consideration. Actors would have to know, ‘Ok, I have one song to change from a bear to a rabbit.’ We rehearsed costume changes as much as the show itself.”

Not borrowed from the book are the respective nationalities and⁄or musical styles of the characters, a Way Off Broadway artistic liberty.

‘‘The foxes are French. Mr. Timm, the gardener, is German. The rabbits play rock and roll, and the bears are country,” said Thornton, who notes that, while staying true to the book’s spirit, extras have been added in the interest of length.

‘‘The book would read very quickly, so we had to flesh it out a bit to get a 50 minute children’s show.”

Creating a play of the right length was one thing. Creating its titular tree was another.

Designed by Way Off Broadway president Bill Kiska, Mr. Willowby’s Christmas tree, said Thornton, is one of the most important set pieces ever to grace a children’s theater stage.

‘‘At least Rapunzel’s tower was stationary. This comes apart in seven pieces.”