Talk about we need a little Christmas–Now! For So Cal audiences who may be feeling like they’ve “grown a little sadder, grown a little colder, grown a little leaner, grown a little older” after months of a seemingly endless barrage of vitriol and negativity connected with recent national events, wouldn’t it be nice to at last relax and look forward this “most wonderful time of the year”? Happily, there are few better ways to ring in the season than with One More Productions’ “The Holiday Gem”! This year’s edition of their annual festive musical revue really lives up to its name featuring live musicians, stunning costumes and imaginative sets–even jolly old St. Nick makes an appearance backed by a chorus-line of dancing elves!
With a book by One More Productions’ Cofounder, Nicole Cassesso and Chris Harper, the direction is by One More Productions’ other cofounder, Damien Lorton; in fact, on opening night, Lorton confessed to all the attendant ‘First-nighters’ that this show is always his personal favorite of the year. Overflowing with shameless fun and mirthful vibes, Cassesso and Harper’s book effectively interweaves and introduces each classic song (and some lesser known) fairly seamlessly. Lorton’s direction takes full advantage of these strengths, allowing one buoyant moment or performance after another to unfold–thus effectively concocting a show that hearkens back to all those great old Holiday variety specials of the 1960’s that television was overflowing with every December. Here, all that’s missing are the likes of Andy Williams or Perry Como; but who needs ‘The King Family” when you have such a supremely talented bunch as the cast here!
Along with Cassesso and Lorton, who also make appearances on stage, many other familiar faces visitors to the “The Gem” have come to know add luster to the goings-on as well. Indeed, the hard-working ensemble is responsible for some incredible group harmonies throughout, enlivening a cornucopia of old favorites while also showcasing a few non-seasonal numbers in a whole new light. Their combined efforts could easily be reason alone to see this. Starting with the opening medley comprised of “Happy Holidays”, “Candy Canes, Silver Bells & Holly” and “The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year”, they’re bound to bring back a few treasured memories for anyone who recalls the sparkly TV fare of Christmases past, while creating new memories to treasure for those who may not have even existed yet. Continuing the adventures of “Ernie The Elf” and a magic snow globe that can transport anyone, anywhere there’s a holiday spirit (provided they too, “Believe in the magic of Christmas”) this time out, Ernie is accompanied by “Emma”–a spunky girl-elf, as the pair are ‘assigned’ to search out holiday cheer wherever it may be hiding. As the festivities get underway, the two materialize in the “Gem Theatre” on Christmas Eve, where the final rehearsal for a holiday show is resulting in little more than bickering from the stressed-out and far less than cheery cast. Producing the globe, these two “Top-Tier Cheer Technicians” offer to help supply them and their incipient production with plenty of cheer and good will. Before you can say “I believe” they take the cast on a journey through one fun-filled enchanted Christmas Fantasy Land after another, among them “”Winter Wonderland”, “Charles Dickens-ville” and ultimately to Santa’s Artic Workshop itself (providing a plethora of clever song cues along the way!) After Intermission, the magic continues when the second act curtain opens to reveal a breathtaking scene reminiscent of Victorian England. Dressed elegantly in ball gowns, top hats and tails, the cast brings to life more ‘traditional’ songs of the season including “The Carol of the Bells”, “Do You Hear What I Hear’, and “Oh, Holy Night”-inviting the audience to sing-along to “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful”, “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing”, “Silent Night” and “Joy To The World”-each with ALL of their full verses; if this doesn’t raise your spirits, better check your pulse-you may be made of stone!
Choreographed by Shauna Bradford and Heather Holt-Smith, this just may be the most inventive—and certainly most animated–dancing the ol’ Gem’ has seen to date! They make wise use of the agility and athletic prowess of their younger dancers, as with a sporty dance that literally springs out of “Need A Little Christmas”; however, ‘more seasoned’ performers more than do their part as well, whether it be through the ‘movin’ and groovin’ Motown maneuvers of “what Christmas Means To Me” that wrap-up the first act in sizzling style; or the majestic ‘ballroom’ segments in Act Two. Better still is how one great routine springs out another as with the rousing finale, “Be A Santa” (in which good St. Nick unveils his new time-saving device, “The Santa-tizer” which can make even the ’Grinchiest’ Scrooge a font of good will.) Incorporating plenty of time-tested tap moves like Shim-shams, time-steps, and trenches, the group are all ‘transformed into a troupe of high-kicking, fancy-stepping Santas themselves. They even fit in a bit of the bubbly Chanukah folk-dance, the “Hora” for extra merry measure! It’s so good-naturedly nutty that it works in spades, so by the time they’re all through, don’t be at all surprised if your toes are tapping and your feet are stomping right along with them! Moreover, Set Designer Wally Huntoon’s wintery ‘Currier and Ives’ (–or noted Charles Dickens’ illustrator ‘John Leech’) inspired sets also warrant an A-Plus rating, while Jon Hyrkas’ vivacious multi-colored lighting effects are also first-rate, providing the just the right ‘attitude’ to every number or plot-twist. These are equally matched by Larry Watts’ vibrant costume co-ordination which ranges from the whimsical wear sported by the local Denizens of the North Pole, to the ‘contemporary’ color-coordinated apparel evocative of one of “Television City’s” slick seasonal offerings circa 1970, or the more stately Victorian evening wear of “Dickens-ville”.
Leading the cast are John Gillies, who keeps the action moving at a swift pace as “Ernie, The Elf” and Megan Mitchell as “Emma, The Elf”. The pair play off one another magnificently, while furnishing some delightful moments of their own as they move the story along-one ‘weird and always wonderful’ enchanting “land” after another. Meanwhile, Adriana Sanchez doesn’t strike a wrong chord (or in this case, trill) as a “JoAnne Worley-esque” “Mrs. Claus”-gaining an abundance of big laughs and admiration while she’s at it!
Boasting a bounty of hair piled so high Marge Simpson would be envious, she readily charms with “It’s Today” prior to leading the elves in a roof-raising rendition of “We Need A Little Christmas”. Later, she and Cassesso compete to see who can out ’Streisand’ the other with a dueling duet of the iconic “Jingle Bells”: “A day or two ago, I thought I’d take a ride, and soon Miss ‘Fanny Bryce’ was seated by my side” they carol.) Likewise, her 11’O’clock Dazzler, “My Grown Up Christmas Wish” is at turns touching, graceful and this year especially, excruciatingly relevant–bringing the proceedings to a fittingly heartfelt climax. (“No more lives torn apart… that wars would never start, and time would heal all hearts,” she croons.) All is not just cookies and milk (and carrots for the reindeer) as Dee Shandera (so impressive earlier this season in “Yours, Patsy Cline”) continues her winning streak as “Evil-yne T. Elf”-a particularly petulant, if puckish, personage from the ‘South Pole” who lost her Christmas spirit and, embittered by what she perceives as Santa’s persistent ignoring of her annual letter to him, is determined to rid the world of this holiday cheer business once and for all. Ms. Shandera shows her comic chops right away with her introductory monologue wherein we first hear of Evil-lyn’s own invention-a “Cheer Destroyer” ray guaranteed to put the damper on any holiday joy. (Upon managing to purloin the globe in the final moments of “What Christmas Means To Me” she glowers “We’ll get ‘em in the next act!”) Right there by her side is the diminutive Shayna Gayer as her more level-headed ‘Minion”-furnishing some awesome acrobatic moves as the pair ‘conspire’ to steal the snow globe and entrance all of the occupants of Santa’s arctic workshop, during their not-so-devilish duet “The Man With The Bag”. Not to worry though, just like the villains in all those seminal “Rankin & Bass” animated specials of old, you can bet that hitherto the final curtain, these “Antarctic-an” ‘Anti-Heroines’ will have a change-of-heart just like Rudolf’s giant snow-pal “Bumble” or young Kris Kringle’s “Winter Warlock”.
As for the solo numbers, here too, Lorton has shrewdly chosen just the right song for the right performer. Stand-outs include Sophia Scarsi, who has grown to become one of “The Gem’s” resident ‘powerhouse’ performers. She excels early on with her part in “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, where she’s joined by Nicole Cassesso and Erika Baldwin—both proven vocal forces in their own rights–to make this old ‘standard’ truly unforgettable. Immediately after, she triumphs again with the renowned “White Christmas”-complete with seldom sung opening verse. Ms. Baldwin subsequently puts her pristine vocal talent into the service of “The Christmas Waltz (It’s That Time Of Year)”, which quickly burgeons into a sumptuous dance interlude as elegantly dressed couples glide across the stage in a splendid and sweeping waltz (–a 14 Karat highlight in an evening full of them!)
Tad Fujioka also scores in Act One introducing “The Christmas Song” (a.k.a. “Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire”) and again after the break by helping to launch the stately hymn, “Oh Holy Night”. Shortly thereafter, he bestows a soulful interpretation of “My Buddy”, which then inaugurates an elegant ‘trio’ of songs with Nicole Cassesso crooning a sultry version of “I’ll Be Seeing You” and Peter Crisafulli delivering a touching “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”; together, each combine their individual melodies making for an unexpectedly poignant ‘triple-play’ intermezzo. Blake Leigh is also spot-on presenting every teenage boy’s wish in the humorous, “Dear Mr. Santa” backed by a bevy of shapely, tinsel-clad showgirls. Earlier on, Cassesso and Leigh also supply some substantial laughs with “Baby It’s Cold Outside”, enacting it the way it was actually meant to be-with her chasing him!
Get your smile on at this brand new edition of a much-loved holiday happening! Having officially opened on Saturday, November 26th, 2016, “The Holiday Gem” is slated to play through Sunday, December 18th, 2016 at the landmark “Gem Theatre” located at 12852 Main Street in Garden Grove, California. Showtimes are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm., with additional Saturday matinees on Dec 3rd, 10th & 17th at 2:00 pm. Tickets may be ordered on-line by logging onto: www.onemoreproductions.com or via phone by calling 714-741-9550 X 221. Discounts are available for seniors 60 and older and for children 12 and younger. (Special “Student Rush” tickets are also available for Thursday and Friday performances.)
Production stills by Lisa Scarsi, courtesy of One More Productions. Special Thanks to Damien Lorton, Nicole Cassesso, Shoko Araki, Lisa Scarsi, Shauna Bradford, Heather Holt-Smith and to the Cast & Crew of One More Production’s 2016 Edition of “The Holiday Gem” for making this story possible.