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“A Little House Christmas”: A Less Standard Christmas Offering in Sierra Madre

Sofia Naccarato, Rachel MacLaughlan, Rich Cassone, and Katie-Grace Hansen are Laura, Ma, Pa and Mary Ingalls in "A Little House Christmas" at Sierra Madre Playhouse [Photo: Gina Long]

Sofia Naccarato, Rachel MacLaughlan, Rich Cassone, and Katie-Grace Hansen are Laura, Ma, Pa and Mary Ingalls in “A Little House Christmas” at Sierra Madre Playhouse [Photo: Gina Long]

With the advent of the holiday season, the demand for something appropriate rises, and theaters – particularly small theaters – begin to struggle with what to provide for their patrons. There is always “A Christmas Carol,” and a wide variety of versions of it, and of plays about people performing it, exist. Still, that has been done so much that a theater out to make its own mark may turn to something else.

Sierra Madre Playhouse has pushed aside Dickens for Laura Ingalls Wilder, and brought back “A Little House Christmas” first produced there two years ago. Then it was all rather precious and stagey. This year’s production is thus a revelation. With a new, strong and naturalistic cast, a director who understands how to make the piece flow, and a feel of continuity – even with the injected period songs which once stood out like interruptions to the tale – this year’s “Little House” proves charming and sweet, but organically so.

The story is derived from one in Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie”. Christmas approaches, the Wilders invite those who aided them as they built their barn to come out to the country for a celebration. Unfortunately, a gully-washing rainstorm begins, the creek starts to rise, the guests must leave quickly, and it soon becomes possible that even Santa may not be able to get to the Wilder home in time for the 25th. What will the Wilders do?

Director Alison Eliel Kalmus not only has a feel for the pacing and tone of this work, she also operates the AKT children’s theater company at SMP, from which were supplied most of the talented children who take significant parts (many of which are double-cast) in the play. The quality of the child actors proves particularly important in a story told from a little girl’s perspective, but the adults are not slouches either.

Among the adults, Rachel McLaughlan’s Ma radiates practical hopefulness, even as she seems weighted by the worries prairie women faced, and sings beautifully when called upon. Rich Cassone gives Pa the open-hearted life force one expects, balanced realistically with the limitations of time and place.

Thomas Colby humanizes the lonely bachelor Mr. Edwards with a genuine heartiness and warmth far from the potentially saccharine rendition one almost expects. Barry Schwam makes family’s uncle – a man unglued by his Civil War experiences – a touching piece to this puzzle, while Valerie Gould’s extremely human Mrs. Oleson charms far more than the expected stereotype.

The children who performed on opening night were likewise un-stagey, and brought a humanizing force to the proceedings. Most especially, Sofia Naccarato’s innocently charming Laura and Katie-Grace Hansen’s Mary showed character, timing, total engagement with story and character, and – especially in Hansen’s case – strong and secure singing voices without that harsh Andrea McArdle overtone so common in youthful stage performers.

Adam Simon Krist and especially Patrick Geringer made the visiting young cousins likable and familiarly boyish. Samantha Salamoff, called upon mostly to be disgusted and moderately disengaged, did this well as the snobbish Nellie Oleson.

One of the real stars of this production has to be Stephen Gifford’s set, which takes all these remarkably realistic people and places them in time and space. Tanya Apuya’s costumes are likewise accurate and character-appropriate. There are little glitches now and then: people who are supposed to be soaking wet aren’t, and little girls sit around in their nightdresses on a winter evening when there is no dry wood for the fire without even wearing shawls, but somehow these seem minor when compared with the general genuineness of feeling this production has to offer.

In brief, this rendition of “A Little House Christmas” proves itself to be far less cloying, far better paced, and far more cohesive than SMP’s previous rendition. As a result, it makes for a fine, and comparatively unique, holiday treat for young and old. Certainly, it makes a break from the predictable Christmas fare.

What: “A Little House Christmas” When: through December 23, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, with extra performances at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, December 10 and 17, and 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, December 20-22 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $34.50 general, $32 seniors, $25 children and youth Info: (626) 355-4318 or

Experimental Setting: “The Gondoliers” rides into Sierra Madre

Craig McEldowney, Jenna Augen, November Christine and Dan "DW" McCann are "The Gondoliers" and their wives in Sierra Madre [photo: Gina Long]

Craig McEldowney, Jenna Augen, November Christine and Dan “DW” McCann are “The Gondoliers” and their wives in Sierra Madre [photo: Gina Long]

One of the great movements of the 20th century theater was a push to move classics of the stage out of their traditional boxes. This is, of course, most evident in the productions of Shakespeare, which was moved outside of the usual “doublet and hose” setting into all kinds of fabulous and/or symbolic situations. Such moves can make an old warhorse speak with new energy.

Indeed, even lighter works like those of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan took well to being toyed with. This spelled the death knell of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, whose totally unchanged, Victorian stagings of their operettas began to seem dusty. But it also meant that new generations could find current connections to their comedy, and the political and social commentaries the operettas were grounded in. Which brings us to the production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Gondoliers” at the Sierra Madre Playhouse.

Director and adaptor Alison Eliel-Kalmus has chosen to make the piece a play within a play, sort of, and to ground this silly tale in modern space. In her version, it is Coronation Day 1953, and most of London is madly celebrating the crowning of a new, young and vibrant queen. A group of actors must leave the general merry-making for a run-through of “The Gondoliers” prior to traipsing off to perform in Brighton – where their sets and costumes have already been sent. So, in an empty space, using whatever theatrical flotsam they can, they sing through the show in their street clothes.

From a purely practical, financial sense, setting the show this way allows one to do away with colorful period costumes (it is supposed to take place in a fantasy-era Venice), and use whatever bits of scenery are to hand. And they do. The artistic advantage to be had from this is a focus on the music – some of Sullivan’s best – and on the comparatively caustic commentary on the class system and monarchy the tale contains.

As for the performance itself, in any Gilbert and Sullivan operetta the lyrics are key. Articulation is everything. Classically trained vocalists used to singing the great operas sometimes have problems with this differing view of the art form. This production is no exception, as the chorus and occasionally a central character get more involved with the lovely music than words it is not only vital to hear but understand in order to follow what’s going on. Still, though this is particularly annoying in the first half, it does improve in the second.

The story revolves around the future of the supposed kingdom of Barataria. The king has died in an insurrection, and his long-hidden son must replace him. The problem has several facets. First, The Grand Inquisitor of Spain removed the boy in infancy and placed him with a lowly Italian peasant to be raised as his son. Now, the peasant is gone and Giuseppe and Marco, raised as brothers, are gondoliers. No one can remember which is the foster son.

So, both gondoliers, who are essentially “republican,” and therefore anti-monarchy, move to Barataria, along with their wives, to take over command of the country. Then, of course, there is Casilda, the daughter of a Spanish duke, who was married to the late king’s son when both were infants. She has fallen for another, unaware she was married, and the gondoliers both have wives. What will happen?

Dan “DW” McCann and particularly Craig McEldowney make a lively pair of gondoliers, vocally up to the parts and entertainingly egalitarian in character. As their spouses, Jenna Augen has an almost Imogene Coca-style of comic silliness, while November Christine manages an earnest passion and richness of tone one could only wish was matched by enough vocal articulation to fully get her often entertaining lyrics. James Jaeger and Joy Weiser make much silliness of the Duke and Duchess of Plaza-Toro, while Kara Masek, as their daughter, sings beautifully when called upon – and that’s about all her part is called on to do.

Also worth noting are John Szura as the Inquisitor, Leslie Thompson as the new king’s foster mother – and the person who sorts out the puzzle of the piece, and John King, who makes much out of the Spanish servant Luiz – a man with his own secrets.

In short, though there are a few rough spots, and the characters Eliel-Kalmus has created sometimes blur a bit with the characters in the musical offering, this production is a good chance to hear one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s greatest musical treasures. Still, one wonders at the choice to set the piece in this particular time period, as the juxtaposition is a bit odd: actors celebrating the crowning of Queen Elizabeth II, then coming in to perform a piece about the ridiculousness of monarchy and the class structure. Then again, maybe that’s the point.

What: “The Gondoliers” When: Through June 21, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Ave. in Sierra Madre How Much: $28 general, $25 seniors, $18 youth, $12 children under 12 Info: (626) 355-4318 or

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