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Published: Sunday, 11/28/2004

Holiday offerings: Whimsy, good cheer at heart of current productions

BY NANCIANN CHERRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Damon Sloan stars in <i>Seussical</i> at the Croswell Opera House in Adrian, Mich. Damon Sloan stars in <i>Seussical</i> at the Croswell Opera House in Adrian, Mich.
WADSWORTH / BLADE Enlarge

Local and regional theaters have wrapped up some visual treats for the whole family.

Three major productions open this week. Two of them, A Christmas Carol and The Night Before Christmas - The Whole Story, have holiday themes. The other, Seussical, does not, but it promises lots of color and joy.

The first to open is also geared toward the youngest audience.

The Night Before Christmas - The Whole Story will mark its fourth anniversary at the Valentine Theatre when it opens tomorrow. The production's daytime performances through Friday are reserved for teachers and their classes. The show opens to the general public Thursday night.

"I wanted to create a first-time theater experience that children could relate to," said Dale Vivirito, the show's author and director, who is also the executive director of the Toledo Cultural Arts Center at the Valentine.

If Vivirito had initial misgivings about his project, they were allayed by the response: More than 30,000 people so far have seen The Night Before Christmas - The Whole Story. One of the really gratifying things, he said, is to have the same teachers bringing their new classes each year.

The Night Before Christmas - The Whole Story was inspired by Clement Moore's classic poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas."

After Vivirito had occasion to read the poem, which starts "Twas the night before Christmas / And all through the house / not a creature was stirring / not even a mouse," he got to wondering what might have happened earlier in the day.

His idle musings led to a Victorian-era family's activities on Christmas Eve. As Father heads off to work, Mother prepares the holiday feasts and the children go to school. The children are too excited to study, however, because they have big plans: They have saved enough money to buy a special gift for their parents: a mantel clock to replace one they accidentally broke.

But on their way to buy the clock, the children meet a man who has no money to give his children a holiday meal, let alone any treats. After much thought, the children decide to give the man their savings in the hope that others might be happy.

Though the children don't know it, the poor man is Santa Claus, and he has some surprises in store for them.

Vivirito said he set his show in the past to give his young audiences a chance to see a time and place they are unfamiliar with, but the themes of family, Santa, holiday cheer, and giving are timeless and help the youngsters use their imaginations to relate to the performers.

Many of his cast members are returning for the show, and one performer in particular tickles Vivirito. Bethany Brown, who played the younger daughter, Annabelle, during the first years has now grown into the role of the older daughter, Abigail.

This year, Annabelle is being played by Rachael Cannon. David Gaillardetz and Jaiden Harrel are playing the sons, Jacob and Jeremy; June Damm returns as Mother, and Mark Tomesek is flying in from Los Angeles to reprise his role as Father. And Denny Corathers plays Santa Claus.

The production also boasts lavish costumes and traditional music, Vivirito said. And if the story is geared toward the young audience, the themes will resonate with all ages.

Public performances of The Night Before Christmas - the Whole Story are scheduled at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 2, 4, and 7 p.m. Saturday, and 2 and 4 p.m. Dec. 5. Tickets are $12 and $15 for adults, $7 and $11 for children. School performances are scheduled during the day tomorrow-Friday, and teachers still have time to make reservations through the box office. Information: 419-242-2791.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Way back in 1982, Paul Causman, then the artistic director of the Toledo Repertoire Theatre, directed a performance of A Christmas Carol.

Now Causman is starring as Ebenezer Scrooge in what has become a Toledo holiday tradition.

For 22 years, the Rep has presented the Charles Dickens classic, and Gloria Moulopoulos, the Rep's current artistic director, says her feelings about the show depend on the time of the year.

Early in the year, she says, "When I think about doing it, I get a sinking feeling and say, 'Not again.' But for our old timers in the cast, it's part of their holiday tradition. And so many new people want to take part, the production takes on a life of its own, and it's hard not to get excited."

"We have lots of families in the show," she said, listing the mother-and-daughter teams of Lyn and Maria Connelly, Marie Eastwood and Lisa Lewandowski, Barbara Barkan and Thea Grabiec, and Mania Dajnak and Anya and Magda Kress. Barbara Siler is appearing with her daughter and granddaughter, Kimberly and Bobbi Baranek, and Gayle Sargent is appearing with her granddaughter, Lydia Lanzinger. Sibling performers abound as well.

A Christmas Carol opens Friday for three performances in the Stranahan Theater, which Moulopoulos calls a "wonderful venue, both for the cast and the audience."

The story of the miser who despised the warmth, gaiety, and generosity of the holiday season has been around for 161 years (1843) and is so familiar that the term "scrooge" has come to mean any mean, pinch-penny person.

With something so well-known, it would seem to be hard to keep the proceedings fresh year after year, but Moulopoulos says that isn't the case.

"Paul [Causman] is a consummate actor, as was Jim Rudes who played Scrooge for many years before him. They each tweak the role in different ways, which is what you need."

There's enough of a difference each year, she said, to make the familiar comfortable, not boring.

Also starring in this year's production are Tim Keogh as Bob Cratchit, Jennifer Kwiatkowski as Mrs. Cratchitt, Paul Manger as Scrooge's nephew, Fred, and Thea Grabiec as Scrooge's long-ago love, Belle.

The pivotal role of Tiny Tim is being played by Maria Connelly and Meghan Rowe. Yes, they're both girls, but no boys tried out for the role, and the girls pull it off just fine, Moulopoulos said.

The ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future are being played by, respectively, Barbara Barkin, Kelvin Davis, and Mark Lindberg.

Members of the Perrysburg Symphony will provide live music for the Christmas carols and party scenes in the show.

The Toledo Repertoire Theatre will present A Christmas Carol at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Dec. 5. Tickets are $25, with a $2 discount for seniors. Information: 419-381-8851 or 419-243-9277.

SEUSSICAL

The Grinch, Horton the elephant, Mayzi LaBird, Yertle the Turtle, and a whole raft of Whos are among the many characters in Seussical, which opens Friday in the Croswell Opera House in Adrian.

Oh, and don't forget the Cat in the Hat.

The musical from Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, who wrote Ragtime, is a "spectacle," according to director Erin Yuen of Adrian.

"Don Wilson's set is fantastic," she said. "There are no straight lines, and character pop out of all sort of places."

Reluctant to say too much about the play lest she give away any of its many surprises, Yuen explained that the plot of Suessical uses elements from about 15 of Dr. Seuss' books, including The Cat in the Hat, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Horton Hears a Who, Yertle the Turtle, and Green Eggs and Ham.

"The whole idea is to get people to use their imaginations," she said. "The music and jokes will appeal to all ages. They cross the spectrum."

Imagination was what Dr. Seuss was all about. The author, whose real name was Theodor Seuss Geisel, wrote his first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, in 1937, and now, almost four generations later, parents are still reading it to their children.

The cast of about 40 comes from northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan.

Damon Sloan of Adrian, who played Tom Sawyer in last summer's Big River, plays the Cat in the Hat. Michael Lane of Fenton, Mich., is Horton the Elephant, Joanne Eversden of Tecumseh is Gertrude McFuzz, and Cindy Eberhardt of Toledo is Mayzie LaBird.

The crew includes a large orchestra directed by Jonathan Sills of Ann Arbor and costumes by Susan Eversden.

Director Yuen is a Wisconsin native and University of Michigan graduate who worked in New York, then moved to Adrian to be with her husband, Michael, a Croswell favorite who is the choreographer for Seussical.

Not only is her enthusiasm for Seussical obvious, but her commitment to the Croswell and its performers is deep.

"These are people who are fervently studying their craft," she said. "We have two colleges here in Adrian, and both have strong theater programs, and we're lucky enough to draw from them."

"People have to support [live theater]," she said.

"You can't just assume it's always going to be there."

Seussical opens Friday and runs through Dec. 12 in the Croswell Opera House, 129 East Maumee St., Adrian. Performances are 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $22 for adults, $20 for seniors and students. At the matinees, tickets for youngsters are $15 for ages 13-18 and $10 for ages 12 and younger. Information: 517-264-7469.

Contact Nanciann Cherry at: ncherry@theblade.com or 419-724-6130.



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