BWW Reviews: A CHILD'S CHRISTMAS IN WALES Visits Open Stage Of Harrisburg
"I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six." So said Dylan Thomas in the original "A Child's Christmas in Wales," and so he says, articulated by Open Stage veteran Stuart Landon in the adaptation of A CHILD'S CHRISTMAS IN WALES by Jeremy Brooks and Adrian Mitchell, now on the boards at Open Stage, directed by artistic director Donald Alsedek.
Much as Oscar Wilde's greatest genius was in his conversation, so Thomas's genius was equally not in his writing alone, but in his speech – his recitation of his own works. His series of recordings for the BBC and for Caedmon cemented his reputation in a way that printed books of poetry could not, and created (along with his infamous drinking and womanizing) the Thomas legend.
A CHILD'S CHRISTMAS IN WALES dramatizes the familiar recording, combining live action with recitation of the text as the adult Thomas wanders into his childhood story. Landon is a marvel as Thomas; for those who know Thomas' voice, Landon's is no real impression of Thomas, but his feel for the rhythm of Thomas' reciting is spot-on. Landon's Thomas interacts as a narrator with his family and friends, and with the young Thomas, played with energy and enthusiasm by Lance Miller, who has performed before with the Open Stage Kids' Company but is certainly able to hold his own on a stage with adults, as well as being uncannily like his adult counterpart.
The show opens with Thomas showing up late for a Caedmon recording session, charming irate recording staff, seating himself at the recording microphone, and talking himself, and the audience, into his past. The set, designed by Jim Woland, works well for this – it is a combination of sparseness, realism, and surreality that suggests the landscape of a snowy and snowing world. It is set in part in an askew picture frame of sorts, looking much like the sort of paper lace doily that is sometimes cut to resemble a snowflake in children's crafts, and it is set partly outside that frame, around an old spinet that centers the action in Thomas' childhood home.
Although much of the show, and of the recitation, is backed with some lovely guitar work by TJ Boyer, near-offstage, the piano is put to good use in the parts of the story that recall the piano-playing uncles (Anthony MC Leukus and Jim Lewis) and the singing aunts (Anne Alsedek, Trish Baillie, and Cassidy Dermott). Along with a few familiar period carols, including "Good Christian Men, Rejoice," the show incorporates the songs Thomas recalled his relatives singing as they entertained each other, including a spirited performance of "Cherry Ripe" by Anne Alsedek (the song should be familiar to anyone who is a fan of the film version of "Victor/Victoria") and of "Drake's Drum" by Tony Leukus and Jim Lewis.
Kudos must go to either the props department or the costumer on this show. One of Thomas' most memorable parts of his recitation is of the "Useful Presents," horridly made items of clothing that then, as now, no one wants and no one can discard, because they have been Made By The Giver: giant shapeless mufflers, improperly sized knitted mittens, caps fashioned in the most awful colors, and scratchy-wool items meant to be worn far too close to one's self, the items best parodied in current literature by Mrs. Weasley's sweaters in the Harry Potter books. Here, the items described by Thomas have either been found or made for the occasion, and are unwrapped and displayed to an audience torn between laughter and the groans of recognition that come to those who have themselves received such Useful Presents in their lives. The balaclava that Lance Miller is forced into may just have a life of its own, and the sight of his being wriggled into it is worth the price of admission all by itself.
Colin York serves as Thomas' childhood friend Jim, henchman in cat-snowballing, companion in climbing from snow to seaside, partner in chomping on candy cigarettes. York and Miller are a fine team of youthful would-be troublemakers, celebrating Christmas as only boys of a certain age can.
The original recording of "A Child's Christmas in Wales" is not lengthy, nor is this show, which clocks in, with no intermission, at somewhat over an hour, but it is an hour well spent. There is more comfortable feeling of Christmas nostalgia and happiness in this than in many longer Christmas events this season. It's a quiet yet joyous show that embraces both the season and the audience like the sweater your great-aunt knitted you, and should leave you feeling the holiday spirit both during the show and after you leave.
Despite its brevity, this may not be sparkly and cheery enough to hold the attention of the smallest of all if you plan to take the family – for that, wait until next month for Landon's repeat performance as Crumpet the Elf in "The Santaland Diaries". But any child old enough to appreciate poetry and Christmas storytelling should be entertained nearly as much as those of us old enough to become drunk on words.
At Open Stage through December 15, followed immediately by "The Santaland Diaries" by David Sedaris on December 18. If you only have time to see one Christmas show this season, you will not be disappointed if this is the one you catch. For tickets (and for tickets to "The Santaland Diaries" as well), call 717-232-6736, or visit www.openstagehbg.com.
Photo Credit: Open Stage