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Entertainment Arts Artsmash

A trio of new-to-Baltimore stage shows take the spotlight this holiday season

The performing arts scene is revved up for another holiday season.

In addition to the usual flurry of such perennial favorites as Handel's "Messiah" and Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker," this year's lineup gains fresh spice from several new-to-Baltimore productions, including a play about the last Christmas of the Civil War and stage adaptations of popular holiday movies.

Here's a look at some of these novel attractions.

'A Civil War Christmas'

In 1997, just before the premiere of "How I Learned to Drive," the powerful play about child abuse that would earn her a Pulitzer Prize, Paula Vogel got the inspiration for a very different work. It would be the playwright's answer to a question that had nagged her each holiday season.

"I kept asking why American theater companies were always putting on Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol,' why we were doing a story about poverty in Victorian England," Vogel says. "Aren't there Christmas stories of our own we could tell?"

Vogel, born in Washington and raised in the Maryland suburbs (she makes her home now in New England), found a fertile source for such stories in a chapter of history that had fascinated her since childhood. The result is "A Civil War Christmas," a panoramic play with music receiving its Baltimore premiere at Center Stage.

The work had a well-received off-Broadway run last year, when Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwewi-Armah saw it.

"I was tremendously touched by its theatricality and its heart," Kwei-Armah says. "It's intimate, yet vast; theatrical, yet truthful. It's wonderful to present a Pulitzer Prize-winning Maryland [playwright] who has written something so poignant and clever."

Vogel weaves together the lives great and small, black and white, slave and free, Christian and Jew, Union and Confederate, in and around Washington as Christmas 1864 approaches.

Lincoln and his wife are there, along with Mary Todd's dressmaker Mrs. Keckley (she was also an important figure in the recent Stephen Spielberg film "Lincoln"). Grant and Lee make appearances, as do Booth and his fellow conspirators. In a nod to Dickens, perhaps, ghosts have a place in this Christmas tale.

Vintage songs of the era and of the season are an integral part of the play. Vogel shows common ground between "All Quiet on the Potomac Tonight" and "Silent Night," and makes a point of reminding everyone that "O Tannenbaum" and the secessionist-leaning "Maryland, My Maryland" share the same melody.

"I remember learning the Maryland state song in fourth grade in 1959," the playwright says, "and asking, what is this line about 'Northern scum'? I think we can't have enough reminders about the Civil War. We are still grappling with issues of that war in Maryland, Washington and nationally, issues that were never really resolved."

Vogel's play points up plenty of connections between past and present.

"You see so many people today questioning what the contract with the government is, just as people were doing in 1859," she says.

And the subject of race remains as volatile as ever. Vogel acknowledges that in various ways, perhaps most subtly when the character of a black farmowner fighting in the Union army tells of how his wife was "taken off her own front porch" by Rebel soldiers.

"That's my shout-out to Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard scholar who was arrested on his own front porch [in 2009]," Vogel says.

There is also a reference to Washington becoming "more partisan, more conspiratorial" than ever in 1864, a line that may have a particularly familiar ring to it now.

Can a work about such a troubled Christmastime, with so many serious matters addressed, satisfy audiences seeking holiday entertainment?

"It's not traditional, and it's definitely not 'A Christmas Carol,' but does it make people leave the theater feeling warm and hopeful? Yes, it does," Kwei-Armah says.

Never mind the little matter of what will happen to Lincoln a few months after that Christmas. In the play, the prospect of peace hovers in the air.

"I do believe hope is the greatest civic virtue, and I think there is a lot of hope in this play," Vogel says. "It is uplifting and it is for families. I felt if we could find hope in the last Christmas of the Civil War, there is no reason we can't be hopeful in 2013 or 2014."

"A Civil War Christmas," currently in previews, opens Tuesday and runs through Dec. 22 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $19 to $59. Call 410-332-0033, or go to centerstage.org.

'White Christmas'

Things don't get much more Christmas-y than "Irving Berlin's White Christmas" — either the 1954 movie starring Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, or the adaptation fashioned about a decade ago by David Ives and Paul Blake that made its way to Broadway in 2008.

The national touring production of the stage version heads to the Hippodrome next month, bringing with it a hearty dose of feel-good medicine.

"This show is a throwback, a big nostalgia piece," says director Norb Joerder. "It's a time machine taking you to a much more innocent place. It's not the deepest story in the world, but there is such wonderful music and choreography that it all holds together. The critics don't love it, but audiences do. They enjoy it for what it is — a great big old musical."

The plot involves a couple of World War II soldiers who entertain the troops and stay in show business after returning to civilian life, eventually bringing a pair of talented sisters into their act. Romances bloom, falter, bloom again in the process.

They end up at a financially iffy Vermont inn run by the buddies' old commanding officer and put on a show to help boost business. All they need is for some snow to fall on Christmas Eve.

"This show has musical numbers just like the ones I remember from early 1960s TV shows like the 'Perry Como Show' and the 'Ed Sullivan Show,' which was my first exposure to musicals growing up in the Midwest," Joerder says.

Speaking of the Midwest, the 2013 tour of "White Christmas" has been playing there since the beginning of the month. Stops in Arkansas and Wisconsin are on the schedule before Maryland.

"The Midwest is our target audience in many ways," says actress Ruth Williamson, "but we got a great response last year at the Kennedy Center, and that's a very sophisticated crowd."

The Baltimore-born Williamson was a standout in that 2012 Washington visit, bringing terrific flair to the role of Martha, the inn manager who knows a thing or two about show biz.

"I really was not all that into the movie," she says. "I'm not a big Bing Crosby fan. I would rather watch 'It's a Wonderful Life.' But I have done the show for eight years now, including on Broadway."

Her role is based on the one played by the great Mary Wickes in the film.

"It was a smaller part and had no songs," Williamson says. "In this version, she's a former Broadway star who, for some reason, is running an inn up in Vermont with a general. I'm kind of the love interest for the general, too."

Williamson got her first big taste of the stage as a 16-year-old at what was then Milford Mill Senior High and went on to study theater at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. After a stint in the subscription department of the Morris Mechanic Theatre, she headed to New York with dreams of a career and landed her first acting job even before moving her stuff up from Baltimore.

She has not performed in Baltimore since a 1986 production of the Marvin Hamlisch musical "Smile" at the Mechanic, and she's looking forward to playing her hometown again in "White Christmas."

"There are a lot more songs than in the movie, a lot more great big dance numbers, certainly a lot more tap dancing," Williamson says. "And the show does put you in the Christmas spirit. It's about giving back to people we love, about generosity of spirit and all that stuff. It's so refreshing to return to a much simpler time. It's a respite from the cynical world we live in."

"Irving Berlin's White Christmas" runs Dec. 3 to 8 at the Hippodrome, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $30.25 to $100.25. Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com.

'It's a Wonderful Life'

When it comes to heartening holiday stories, it's hard to beat the one about George Bailey, unable to fulfill his dream to travel far beyond the borders of Bedford Falls in upstate New York, drawn into a spiral of depression, and rescued by an angel on Christmas Eve.

The tale was Immortalized in the 1946 Frank Capra film "It's a Wonderful Life" with James Stewart and Donna Reed, shown almost as often as department store commercials at this time of the year.

The movie makes an obvious candidate for adaptation. Over the years, it has been turned into a musical a couple of times and at least one play. It has just been transformed again.

ArtsCentric, a theater company founded a decade ago by a local actors and Morgan State University students, will premiere a version of "lt's a Wonderful Life" adapted for the stage by company artistic director Kevin McAllister.

"We were trying to figure out what we wanted to do for the holidays," McAllister says. "We considered 'A Christmas Carol' and 'Miracle on 34th Street,' but then someone mentioned 'It's a Wonderful Life.' I thought, no, that's got to be done just a certain way. Then I felt, wait a moment. It's a universal story about a man who has a firm belief in something. That can speak to everyone."

And to every time period.

McAllister decided to update the story — in this version, the action spans the 1980s to today — and give it a multicultural touch. In addition to African-American, Latino and white actors, the cast includes several multiracial children.

"When you think of George Bailey, you think of a tall white guy, not a short actor who is ambiguously ethnic," says Moses Rodrigues, who has Bolivian, Afro-Brazilian and Italian roots. "When Kevin asked me to consider playing George, I thought it was cool. I like the twist on it."

In this new treatment, there are references to things more of our time than the 1940s, including the way some businesses have been adversely affected by the Internet. And the film's villain, money-grabbing Mr. Potter, gets a bit of a makeover.

"He's almost funny in the movie, he's so evil," McAllister says. "I wanted to express a little more of the humanity of these people, and how the choices they make affect others."

Fans of the movie, and younger people who never saw it, will find it easy to follow the play, Rodrigues says. "It's faithful to the story and it's clear, with just enough of an edge."

ArtsCentric makes a point of teaming up with a charitable organization when it puts on productions. A portion of proceeds from "It's a Wonderful Life" will be used to help the Family Tree's Adopt-A-Family program.

"We are all caught up in commercialism at this time of year," McAllister says, "but the essence of the holidays is family."

"It's a Wonderful Life" will run weekends Dec. 6 to Dec. 15 at the Garland Theater, Garrison Forest School 300 Garrison Forest Road, Owings Mills. Tickets are $20 to $25. Call 410-504-5398, or go to artscentric.net.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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