Two youth-centric holiday theatrical offerings are tempting area folks this season, both unique enough, on the one hand, but traditional enough, on the other, to enhance the warmth of these special days. One is more funny and the other more poignant and both are into their last week.
They are presented within a quarter-mile of each other, the Creative Cauldron’s “A Christmas Carol Memory” being at the Art Space of Falls Church, 400 S. Maple, and the Providence Players’ “Best Christmas Pageant Ever” being at the theater in the James Lee Community Center on Annandale Road between the Falls Church city limits and Route 50.
Local youth abound in both, and in terms of Falls Church specifically, with Thomas Jefferson Elementary’s Madeline Aldana and Arianna Vargas and Henderson Middle’s Constance Meade among those in the Cauldron show, and TJ’s Samuel Pounds among the energetic youths on the stage in the Providence Players show, which is presented in conjunction with The Young Hearts.
Among other things, a highlight of the Cauldron production is the puppet mastery of designer Margie Jervis, now in her seventh season as resident designer and visual arts educator for Creative Cauldron. In 2010 she received a Strauss Fellowship Award from the Arts Council of Fairfax for her extraordinary work.
Her colorful generally life-sized puppets with their highly expressive faces – one was deemed almost too spooky and had to be softened a little – were designed for this show, adding an aura of otherworldliness that is entirely appropriate for the play’s theme, which is centered around a revival of an annual family reading of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
The Providence Players’ production of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” is based on a 1971 book by Barbara Robinson and tells the story of what happens when the six delinquent children of the non-church-going Herdman family decide to show up at a church on the promise of free snacks.
Despite protests from other church goers, they are offered roles in the church’s annual youth Christmas pageant, and a highly unconventional version of the Christmas story results. However, the core meaning of that story shines through to at least one of the raucous Herdman kids. Robinson first published her story in McCall’s magazine, and then as a book that ultimately sold 800,000 copies.
The Providence Players’ director Liz Mykietyn in her program note said of the show, “I know the script” (which she called ‘silly and sweet’) “inside out. I myself played ‘Beth Bradley’ when I was a kid, let’s just say circa early 1980s.” She added, “Laughing at Christmas time reminds me of my own family, for the family that laughs together bonds together just as much as when you are there for the rough times, too.”
In the case of the Cauldron’s show, creativity abounds beyond the puppetry and youth actors. The Cauldron’s storied founder and manager Laura Hull conceived and directs of this show, having commissioned Jennifer Clements to re-imagine the Dickens classic. Dickens’ poem in his story, “A Child’s Hymn,” is put to original music by Matt Conner and sung beautifully by young James Durham, who plays Tiny Tim.
In her program notes, Hull says, “Memories of happy, pleasant, youthful times help us to reconnect to those who are close to us at the holidays. We remember fondly the stories and anecdotes of past celebrations. But often, just like Scrooge, we churn up memories that have been suppressed…the painful ones.”
“I wanted to find a way to make the power of the Dickens story vivid and meaningful to a contemporary audience. Jen has woven a beautiful framing story for the tale – one may touch a nerve right now when many are feeling a deep divide in their families and are searching for healing and reconciliation.”
OK, so which one of these two fine shows do you want to see? Don’t be Buridan’s mule and starve in between them because you can’t make up your mind! If in doubt, do both. I did.
The Providence show is Thursday – Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with final 2 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday. The Cauldron show is Thursday – next Tuesday at 7:30 (except 7 p.m. Sunday) and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.