As Pit & Balcony Theatre continues its landmark 80th Anniversary season, patrons and theatre-lovers can look forward to embark upon a decidedly different excursion this holiday season with the upcoming production of The Christmas Express. With performances slated to run from December 2-11th, this nostalgic theatrical greeting card written by Pat Cook is set in a small town railway station the day before Christmas Eve.
According to Director Jessica Asiala, what distinguishes this production from the abundant crop of Christmas films & productions that have lit up stages & screens with seasonal 'messages' over the years, is the way the play takes what can be a difficult season for many people and lightens the drab weight of sullen spirits with comedic relief.
“To me this is not your purebred song & dance Christmas production,” reflects Jessica. “For those that have lost loved ones, or those just struggling to get by in tough economic times, Christmas can be a difficult season. This is actually more akin to It's A Wonderful Life in the sense that the setting and costuming is rather drab, with spirits muted until the character of Leo Tannenbaum arrives, bringing the gift of that feel good spirit of Christmas to town with him.”
Although Jessica is staging the production in the 1950s, she is treating it as a modernistic production, translatable to any generation. “It has a nostalgic feel to it that lends itself effectively to contrasting emotions,” she continues. “Even now, railway stations are pretty much non-existent, but they used to have a hustle and bustle surrounding them, with people coming and going. But today, no one has much of a use for them anymore.”
Indeed, back in 1946, as many World War II GI's were returning home and there were a pair of popular songs, Sentimental Journey and Waiting for the Train to Come In, which suggested a return to a pre-war normalcy and a return to the 'happy' life we knew before wartime. Unfortunately, the pre-war 'normal' life never returned; but the yearning and sentimentality for it decidedly endured.
Within this context of a dreary town, devoid of holiday cheer, the stage is set for Tannenbaum's arrival out of nowhere, which suddenly unlocks the Christmas spirit, which starts to permeate the entire town. Replete with a cast of 10 eccentric small town characters, each tends to wise crack their way to finding out the true wonder of Christmas.
“One of the interesting components is that our production is somewhat of a family affair, with two married couples and a brother & sister featured in the cast,” continues Jessica. “It has a cool family affair kind of air to it and one of the married couples - Pam & Tim Barnes - actually play a married couple in our production.”
With a focus on the character of Hilda Trowbridge, performed by Jeanne Harper of Bay City and her sidekick Satch Brunswick, played by Kevin Profitt, other colorful characters in the menagerie of town folk include Mary Margaret Fletcher as Penelope, a reporter for a local newspaper; Amanda Houthoofd as Maggie the mail carrier; Michael Olk in the pivotal role of Leo Tannenbaum; rounded out by characters performed by Howard Deal, Linda Rebney and Susan Profitt.
According to Jessica, a pair of challenges exist with this production. “One big hurdle is that many people in the general public confuse this play with The Polar Express, which it decidedly is not. Tom Hanks is not going to be here!” she laughs.
“The other challenge is making sure that we're focusing on the whole message behind the play, as well as keeping a tight lock on the comedic timing. Tempo and timing are the hardest elements to master; and with a show like this, you have to your timing down tight, which is what I am stressing to the cast.”
“It can also be challenging figuring out to do when 10 people are on the stage at one time,” smiles Jessica. “But the cash has been really great offering up suggestions. With everybody collaborating on ideas it makes my job easier.”
One thing I am curious about is whether understudies are employed should a cast member fall ill or be unable to attend. “Unfortunately, there are no understudies in community theatre,” explains Jessica. “If somebody gets sick either myself or my stage manager will jump into the role. One of the things about working in community theatre is that you put forth that commitment not to back out. Once you're in there, you're in there. I have been in productions where people backed out due to health issues here and there, but am hoping we don't have that problem. The cast is really excited about it, which always helps.”
In keeping with the seasonal spirit, Pit & Balcony Theatre is also now lit with colorful lights adorning the lobby poinsettias flanking the main entrance, and gifted with the loving attention to detail of Suzie Reid of Saginaw, who is volunteering all of her free time to make this 80th anniversary Holiday Production an event not to be missed.
“My husband, Gary, and I have been volunteering at Pit and Balcony for the past twenty years and we both truly believe that support of the arts is a fundamental part of a vibrant community,” says Suzie. “What better way to get into the holiday spirit than to warm up with a cup of cocoa and watch a fabulous production?”
Along with its usual concessions, Pit and Balcony will host a cocoa bar each night of performance and is selling tickets for a drawing for a dollar each. Drawing prizes include train excursions, a spa package, restaurant gift certificates, a train set donated by Brasseur Electric Trains Inc. and much more.
Drawing tickets are on sale now and there is no limit to the number of tickets per patron. The drawing will take place on Sunday, December 11 immediately following the performance. Patrons need not be present to win.
Pit and Balcony is also proud to be a Toys for Tots drop-off location this year as well. Please bring your new, unwrapped toys for boys and girls to the theatre drop box. The theatre lobby is open from 8:30 am to 5 pm and is closed from 12 pm to 1 pm for lunch.
Performances for The Christmas Express run December 2-11, 2011. Friday and Saturday nights start at 8pm and Sunday matinees begin at 3pm. Tickets are $18 and may be purchased online at www.pitandbalconytheatre.com or by calling the box office at (989)754-6587. Student rush tickets are available for $9 fifteen minutes prior to curtain on a first come, first served basis. Student ID is required.