SLO Little Theatre raises the curtain on holiday cheer

Two shows — one slightly naughty, the other nice — run into December

slinn@thetribunenews.comNovember 20, 2013 

Some people like their Christmas cookies served with a glass of milk. Others prefer a dry martini.

This holiday season, the San Luis Obispo Little Theatre offers two shows tailored for distinctly different audiences. One is a sweet, nostalgic classic about believing in Santa Claus, the other a cynical, albeit hilarious, send-up of holiday cheer.

Between “Miracle on 34th Street,” which opens Friday, and “The Santaland Diaries,” which starts Nov. 30, audiences should find something to satisfy every appetite, according to the company’s managing artistic director, Kevin Harris.

“There’s always going to be that holiday audience that wants that traditional holiday show, and ‘Miracle’ totally fits the bill,” Harris said. “(But) there are plenty of people in this town that want to see something different.”

Lisa Woske, who directs “Miracle on 34th Street,” agreed.

“It’s one of the missions of the Little Theatre, to be inclusive and broad-reaching and have variety,” she said. “It’s a live representation of community theater at its best.”

A Christmas miracle

“There’s that handful of things that you do every Christmas,” Woske said, and one of them is watching “Miracle on 34th Street.”

“There’s such a wonderful soft spot for the movie and so many memories that people have associated with it,” said Woske, who also helmed San Luis Obispo Little Theatre’s production of “It’s a Wonderful Life” last year. “Everything that people love about the movie will be represented on stage.”

Like the 1947 movie and its 1994 film remake, the stage version of “Miracle on 34th Street” centers on Kris Kringle (Tracy Thornell), a department store Santa Claus who claims to be the real deal.

While working to reconcile business rivals Mr. Macy and Mr. Gimbel, Kris becomes determined to help disillusioned divorcee Doris Walker (Jaimie Clarke) and her young daughter, Susan (Saige Gardner), overcome their cynicism. He enlists the help of the Walkers’ neighbor, friendly attorney Fred Gayley (Chad Stevens), in his quest.

According to Harris and Woske, the stage production differs slightly from the movie, eliminating some characters and reducing the grand scale of the story while adding a chorus of elves and children singing Christmas carols. (Both productions feature sets by David Linfield; Keith Wetzel and Sharon Woodside handled costumes, while Harris, Woske, John Battalino and Suzy Newman shared lighting and sound design duties.)

“We don’t have the sweep of film and the scope of locations … but it’s a very true adaptation and very lovingly restructured,” Woske said, noting that this version takes place in 1959. “It really does evoke a simpler time.”

“You do want to support the magic and the wonder that is really at the heart of the story,” she said.

Thornell, a Bay Area transplant who is making his San Luis Obispo Little Theatre debut, said he faces a similar challenge in taking on the role that won Edmund Gwenn an Academy Award for best supporting actor. (Upon receiving his Oscar, Gwenn reportedly said, “Now I know there is a Santa Claus!”)

“His openness and his goodwill are pivotal to the character,” Thornell said of Kris Kringle.

At the same time, the actor added, “He’s dealing with … the whole idea of commercialism and pushing toys at children. It’s (all about) trying to find a happy medium between being childlike and completely open and realizing the forces at work.”

Sedaris adaptation

For Kevin Harris and his daughters, listening to David Sedaris’s “SantaLand Diaries” is a holiday tradition.

Sedaris first shared his funny, acerbic account of working as a Christmas elf at a New York City department store with radio listeners on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” in 1992. The essay, later published in the collections “Barrel Fever” and “Holidays on Ice,” catapulted Sedaris to national fame.

Joe Mantello adapted Sedaris’ essay for the stage as a one-man, one-act play, “The Santaland Diaries,” in 1996.

According to Harris, the stage version follows the original story closely, adding lighting and music while preserving Sedaris’s priceless observations. (Like the original, it contains mature language not suitable for younger ears.)

In “The Santaland Diaries,” Crumpet the Elf — as the narrator is known — gets a job at Macy’s dealing with pushy parents, terrified children and drunken, lecherous Santas.

At first merely humiliating, the job becomes almost unbearable as he endures insults, bribery, fistfights, panic attacks and public urination. His merry misadventures may be the stuff of nightmares, but they make for entertaining storytelling.

Since he so closely associates “The Santaland Diaries” with Sedaris, Harris said, “It was a real challenge to approach the piece and find my own version of Crumpet. It’s difficult to get his cadences out of my mind and make it specifically my own.”

He’s also been working with director Newman to get comfortable being alone on stage, noting that “the audience is basically the other character in the play.”

Woske called Harris’ turn as Crumpet “absolute perfection in casting.”

“He’s just going to rock that (role),” she said. “That’s going to be a fun holiday moment.”

 IF YOU GO

“Miracle on 34th Street”
7 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays;
Friday through Dec. 22
$15 to $25

"The Santaland Diaries”
9:15 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays;
Nov. 30 through Dec. 21
$20

San Luis Obispo Little Theatre, 888 Morro St., San Luis Obispo
786-2440 or www.slolittletheatre.org

Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.

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