Christmas at the Local, you had me at Fairytale of New York. I know I’m not alone, because my wife agrees, but I was disappointed that Theater Latté Da’s home grown Christmas musical All is Calm was out on tour this year and would not be performed in the Twin Cities. Theater Latté Da you are forgiven, it is now my sincere hope that All is Calm will be absent from the theater’s stage every other year so that it can play in rotation with Christmas at the Local. In a theater holiday season filled with “must see” productions, Christmas at the Local raises the bar and becomes “the must see show.” Nostalgically reminding us of Christmases of the past while sending a message of peace for today and the future. Filled entirely of music, prose and poetry, there is no narrative among the characters on stage but that which we the audience project on them. All we are given, indeed all we need, are eight performers who gather at The Local, pull out their instruments and play and sing songs for one another and share a story and a poem. Gathering in a way that is familiar from our collective youths and yet so foreign to us now. It makes one long for the days when we uninhibitedly sang Christmas Carols around the tree and gathered with the aunties and uncles, cousins and family friends to celebrate en masse. More a gathering in a local bar listening to local musicians than a musical, more a feeling of sitting in a family room sharing stories then a poetry or spoken word recietal. It’s hard to describe the completeness one feels at this performance which is so simple, yet so perfect.
Christmas at the Local features songs from the likes of Paul Simon, Shane Mac-Gowan and Joni Mitchell as well as traditional Welsh songs. The eight performers including among them Jason Hansen, who is also the Music Director and arranged and orchestrated all of the music, play all of the music on stage and several play multiple instruments. It’s like hitting the right bar on open mic night where everyone is fantastic and joins in with one another. The show also features a telling of A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas with music composed by Cerys Matthews and Mason Neely. It was a version of this composition by Matthews and Neely on MPR radio that sparked the idea for Christmas at the Local with Theater Latté Da’s artistic Director Peter Rothstein. Originally slated to debut in 2020, the Pandemic caused the delay but also inspired the inclusion of the poem “The Longing for Amazing Peace” by Dr. Maya Angelou with music by Chastity Brown. The spoken word pieces are performed by the entire cast with the Proprietor of the Local played by Joy Dolo featured most prominently.
When you have a cast of eight and they are all perfect it’s hard to know what to say other than then entire ensemble is brilliant. So let’s start with Joy Dolo, who appears to be the least musically gifted member of the cast as the instruments she plays are the triangle and a couple of other moments of percussion whereas the rest of the cast are playing violins, guitars, horn, pianos, accordions among others. Now to be fair she is serving drinks and handing out candies and when it’s her turn to sing, she proves that you don’t have to play an instrument to be musically gifted. But where Dolo shines is when it comes to the spoken word performances. Taking the lead as the main narrator of A Child’s Christmas in Wales, she is wonderfully expressive sucking you into the humor and beauty of Dylan Thomas’ perfectly chosen words. Playful but not childish, it’s perfectly calibrated, changing tones from sentence to sentence; at times a wistful remembrance, at other times a riotous tale of childhood mischief. At the start of the show it feels like Dolo is there as a support, to keep the glasses full and lend her voice to the chorus, by the end it’s clear she is the heart and soul of the production. I first noticed Dolo last year at Jungle Theater’s production of Every Brilliant Thing, add this performance to the list of brilliant things.
The entire cast is fantastic, it’s an embarrassment of riches to be sure. Phinehas Bynum an alum of All Is Calm is on keys and has a nice supporting role in the Thomas piece as the narrator’s friend. Bradley Greenwald must feel right at home as this feels reminiscent of his own show The Longest Night, also a mixture of spoken words and music, his rich voice and baritone horn are a perfect compliment. Matt Riehle who came to my attention in Latté Da’s production of Once is once again here with guitar in hand and I loved his appropriately sanitized version “Fairytale of New York.” Rounding out the cast are Spencer Chandler on Accordion, Elizabeth Reese on Flute/Saxophone, Quinn Shadko on Violin, and of course as mentioned above Jason Hansen on a multitude of instruments including the Mandolin. All sing beautifully, particularly angelic are Reese and Shadko whose voices complement each other nicely. I also want to highlight the Scenic Designer Benjamin Olsen, whose set for The Local is one of the best I’ve ever seen. He has perfectly created the neighborhood haunt of our collective imagination, the place where everyone knows your name, where stories told are for all to share in, and everyone joins in the singing of songs. The set is recognizably a present day location while simultaneously feeling like it could have existed 50 years ago exactly as it is. It adds to the timelessness on the entire production
Christmas at the Local will transport you to an idyllic world. Where the Christmases of our remembered, with advantages, past seem like yesterday and there is a place we can gather together. A place where we all sing well and speak eloquently of peace and good will to all. The show runs through January 1st, for more information and to purchase tickets got to https://www.latteda.org/christmas-at-the-local
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