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Review: THE NIGHT BEFORE is the Perfect Gift at FreeFall Theatre Company

Review: THE NIGHT BEFORE is the Perfect Gift at FreeFall Theatre Company

This cast of four will warm your hearts, and fill you with Joy, welcoming in the Spirit of Christmas.

"Everyone is so busy, there is no time for human connection... we spend most of our time looking at our phones these days..."

"Friends are the Family you choose..."

Allow me if you will a little indulgence as I set the scene. The year is 2020, the Global Pandemic that has riddled the world, and the country as we know it to shutter/ shelter in place.

Like many Performing Arts Organizations, the folks at freeFall Theatre, known for their motto "Just escape awhile..." and their inventive way of producing live theatre, was struggling to find the best outlet to keep producing, while safely doing so for both performers and patrons alike.

Producing Artistic Director Eric Davis and Director Matthew McGee began discussions about how to safely produce a Christmas Show that was full on Christmas versus just taking place around Christmas. In the past freeFall has produced works such as Peter & The Starcatcher, and The Lion in Winter that work for Christmas shows, but are not necessarily Christmas shows. They have also in the past produced A Christmas Carol, but being inventive, Eric Davis and company wanted to shake things up a little, and if any theatre is well known for doing just that, its freeFall. So you can say the show itself was born out of a challenge, and freeFall delivered ten-fold. The Night Before was such a hit, freeFall decided to bring it back this season for the second year in a row, with some new adaptations and new characters.

The original concept behind The Night Before came from a conversation between Matthew and Eric looking into the idea of going back to the basics and producing a Christmas Show. After looking into offerings from Rights Companies, which for those who don't know are the companies holding production rights to many shows produced Regionally and on Broadway, Theatre Companies then apply for permission to perform said shows based on Royalties. Matthew then made a comment that he could probably write an original concept musical that was better than offerings provided by the Rights Companies, Eric said "Ok, Do it.." and thus The Night Before was born.

Matthew also wanted to maintain a budget, and by using what was already in stock as far as set pieces/props and costumes, etc... allowed them to do just that, all while struggling to forge a new way out of the Pandemic. Matthew then thought the setting of the show being placed in Michael Raabe's home was the perfect place for the characters in the world of the show to reside.

The Night Before originally had six cast members and a full band. Then Matthew began to think, if they could hire performers who also played instruments then the need for a full band wouldn't be needed. So six characters became four characters, and the addition of Puppets to replace the other two characters made up the difference. With the musical arrangements by Musical Director Michael Raabe, the show itself was coming together.

Then the theatrical world hit another blow with the passing of the great Stephen Sondheim in 2021. Matthew added a cat to the show by the name of Stephen Sondheim, and even had a photo of the late Stephen Sondheim placed on the piano.

The first to be cast in the production opposite Michael Raabe is Regional Favorite Hillary Scales-Lewis, who audiences might remember from freeFall's production of Marie and Rosetta for a few seasons prior. Then Matthew began conversations with Sara DelBeato about joining the show, originally sought after to play herself, however, she began to think that playing a character that was broad and filled with zany antics could be fun, and thus the character of Phyllis Schatz was born from the minds of Sara and Matthew. So now we have 3 performers and one cat named Stephen Sondheim, now the search was on to find a gentleman who could play strings. No Stranger to freeFall, having last been seen onstage in their production of The Lion in Winter, Robert Spence Gabriel joined the cast as himself. So now we have the who, the when, and the where, now all that's left is to add the what. For our purposes the What in our show is our conflict which the characters must face, because what's a show without contention?

So with the show set in Florida, and a group of unlikely friends, a crazy cat lady for a neighbor, and a Politically charged landlord gathering to celebrate the "Night before, the night before Christmas," where could the source of conflict lie? What would happen if Florida was suddenly plunged into a "Snowmageddon? What happens when the crazy cat lady brings homemade brownies and places them in the kitchen next to someone's "Magic Brownies.."? Christmas Carols, hilarious antics and references to great Broadway musicals and Composers like Stephen Schwartz, and the late great Stephen Sondheim take the stage by storm in The Night Before.

As our Master of Ceremonies, Michael Raabe is a gem. With a smile that lights up the room and a voice that resonates to the back wall, his masterful piano-playing and vocal abilities are wonderfully presented here. We all know how stressful hosting a party can be especially during the holidays, and Michael proves to be the host with the most. Adding an additional hat as the Musical Director, Vocal Arranger, and Original Song Composer, Michael guides us through from start to finish with the utmost precision. I love the opening of the show, when he says, "Alexa, play It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," as he is getting the home ready for his guest.

Hillary Scales-Lewis always lights up the stage every time she appears, and this is no exception. Having witnessed her performance in Marie & Rosetta, I was excited to see her back on stage at freeFall. As herself, her vocal talent shines in moments during Dion Warwick's "What the World Needs Now...", and the group moments of the play "A Very Sondheim Christmas!" and "Joy to the World/Go Tell it on the Mountain," among others. Always a joy onstage, I would move mountains to see her perform again and again.

As our guitar-playing, tinder-dating, Starbucks barista, Robert Spence Gabriel is in his element here. Having experienced many times the presence he carries on stage both with Jobsite (most recently in Picasso at the Lapin Agile), and at freeFall (The Lion in Winter), I have yet to ever see him in a musical. His vocal presence is exceptional, especially during unforgettable rendition of Elvis's "Blue Christmas," and his guitar playing is a wonderful addition. Always outstanding assuming any character Spence should be exceptionally proud of the work he achieved here, and I would do everything in my power if I was him, to make it a point to be in more musicals!

Finally, and certainly last but not least the Undeniably Wonderful Sara DelBeato as our crazy cat lady neighbor Phyllis Schatz. Her comedic timing is spot on, and everything from the over-the-top glasses, tracksuit, and wind-proof hair is hilariously entertaining from the very start. There is a moment in the second act where she plays the Euphonium that needs to be experienced! Her vocal power is out of this world and her performance is full of heart.

Director Matthew McGee really pulls out all the stops here, and does so with the finest attention to detail. Writing a show can prove to be a Mountainous task, and Matthew proves that even through challenges (Pandemic) great theatre can be produced, and fruitful for both the artistic company producing the work, and the patrons attending the performances. If you do not leave this show with the largest of smiles on your face, and warmth in your heart then Scrooge should just retire. Together with original songs, and arrangements by Michael Raabe. The Night Before proves to be the perfect Holiday Treat for you and yours.

Technically speaking always on top of the game, the folks at freeFall really excel here. With Scenic Design by Tom Hansen, Original Lighting Design by Dalton Hamilton, and Current Production Lighting Design by Trenton Szabo the world in which these characters reside come together seamlessly and create a beautiful moment in time. With Sound, Video, and Costume Design by Eric Davis, each exceptionally detailed adds a wonderful element to the show. Props Coordination by both Sarah Smiley, and Joseph Michael-Kenneth help create the world in which these characters must interact and move about the space, and allow for a seamless transition from script to stage. Adding a cherry on top with the always wonderful Brian Shea as the Production Stage Manager, The Night Before should be the ticket on everyone's list.

Speaking of lists, Season Subscriptions to the always exceptional and impressive work by the folks at freeFall Theatre would make the perfect holiday gift, or stocking stuffer. Subscriptions are only $29/mo for adults and $19/mo for youth under 18. See as much freeFall programming as you'd like for one low monthly price. As another option you can opt for the Flex Pass. This flexible package is the OG punchcard style subscription. This is a pack of 6 admissions that can be used in any combination you wish. See each mainstage production once. A couple could catch three of the shows together. Or bring a group of 6 to one show. You get the idea. This is a great package for those who only wish to attend mainstage productions or for those who are only in town seasonally. This package does have an expiration date of one year after purchase. As always, if Subscriptions are not the gift you seek, Gift Cards are always available by immediate delivery via email, or by printing out an attractive card. All can be yours and much more by visiting freefalltheatre.com, or by calling 727-498-5205. Give the gift of live theatre, not only making their Holiday Season special but all year long!

Give you and yours the greatest treat this Holiday Season, make the trip to freeFall Theatre in St. Petersburg for The Night Before, and "simply escape awhile," while your there be sure to tell Stephen Sondheim hello, and ask Phyllis about her Blue Hawaiian Specialty! This is one production you absolutely must not miss! Tickets and more information can be found by visiting freefalltheatre.com, The Night Before is only onstage through December 24, 2022, so what are you waiting on... Christmas?

Photo Credit: Thee Photo Ninja



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