As anyone who’s been on board with the show over its various seasons is well aware, there’s only one “Holiday GEM” –and now it’s back, completely re-envisioned” for 2021!
Presented by “One More Productions”, the award-winning resident musical theater company housed in the landmark “Gem Theatre” in Garden Grove California, this semi-annual Yuletide extravaganza is marking its eight-year anniversary! Directed by “One More Productions” Co-Founder Damien Lorton (who serves triple duty–likewise acting as the Musical Director, over and above appearing as ‘The One And Only” “Santa Claus”!) with a production this ‘joyful and triumphant’ it’s no wonder that the talents of FOUR Choreographers have been utilized. They are: Shauna Bradford, Angela Mattern, Kady Lawson and Heather Holt-Smith, and their diverse styles and dance specialties provide the goings-on with a nice variety of movement from start to finish.
Each year, the story involves the same basic elements, but with enough variations to keep things fresh and lively: A magic snow globe belonging to none-other-than “Jolly Old St. Nick” is, in one way or another, compromised and/or purloined– usually by some grinchy “Scrooge” type triggered by the entire “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men” thing, who wants to use it to their own nefarious ends. This leads to a quest (through some of the very best songs of the season) to get it back and restore order in time for Christmas morning. Based on an original concept by Co-Producers Damien Lorton and Nicole Cassesso, on opening night, it was explained that “One More Production’s” goal was to create, on the live, in-person stage, the kind of big, buoyant Christmas special such as the likes of “Andy Williams”, “Perry Como” or “The Carpenters” grew notorious for, and which back in the 1960’s and 70’s, peppered the network airwaves every December. With this consideration, “The Holiday GEM” doesn’t simply succeed, it excels masterfully. Of course, it’s worth noting too, that another marvelous aspect of this show is that when it means to be effervescent and vibrant—it is VERY effervescent and vibrant; then, when its aim is to be calmer, and more sincere, here too, it succeeds superlatively. In fact, were it possible to harness all of the cast’s enthusiasm and sheer good nature as raw energy, Orange County would be well powered–fueled by their exceptional talents alone well into the new year!
Making use of an off-stage Narrator (played by Robert Edward) who speaks in rhyming verse reminiscent of the seasonal staple “How The Grinch Stole Christmas”, the new, sharp-witted libretto has been updated and enhanced by Cassesso and Chris Harper. All of the endearing songs remain, as are many of the time-tested elements of the plot; however, this year’s edition acts as a prequel of sorts to previous versions, exploring the relationship of “Mrs. Claus” (whose maiden name, we learn along the way, is “Agatha Frost”,) and her sister (and one-time Vaudeville partner,) “Cicely Frost”, and the resentment that grew when “Aggie” suddenly decided to trade in the spot-light for the Northern lights, quitting the act to marry the big man in the red suit who resides up there. When the curtain rises, the soon-to-be feuding “Frost Sisters” (picture something akin to silver-screen Goddesses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford–or at least Bette and Miriam Hopkins–) dynamically open the show with (what else?) “Sisters”—a bubbly, just-this-side-of campy Vegas show piece, giving over with some glorious harmony while they do it! Immediately after, “Agatha” announces her retirement much to the dismay of the sister she’s leaving behind. Flash forward to the present where we find “Cicely” resentful (–to put it mildly!) in the wake of her failed solo career. Instead, she has turned her attentions to magic (the dark kind) so when she hears about this ‘magic snow globe’ that can increase her power exponentially, she’s hellbent-for-leather out to procure it for her own!
After the “Sisters” prelude, we’re transported to a magical land that comes complete with a coterie of dancing “Show Elves” who greet spectators with a tune-filled mélange including “Happy Holidays”, “Candy Canes, Silver Bells And Holly” and “Walking In A Winter Wonderland”, all of which occur in rapid-fire succession. Indeed, many (if not most) of the musical sequences come in extended medleys with the group performing classic songs one after the other, or with solo pieces performed (usually in threes) after which, the trio join together for still another ‘shared’ number. Such is the case with “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” sung by three incredibly talented chanteuses: Erica Baldwin, Lexi Cross and Megan Mitchell. This is followed by the equally talented Kady Lawson who supplies a splendid–and novel–rendering of “White Christmas” complete with its seldom heard opening verse, along with a sultry samba for which she’s joined by Kalvin Sartin, Peter Crisafulli, Zach Martinez and Tad Fujioka. Subsequently, Fiona Wynder (who, we’re informed, was a recent addition to the cast) gives us an electrifying interpretation of “Let It Snow”, joined by verses sung by Ms. Baldwin, and Messrs. Crisafulli and Sartin. After intermission, it’s the boys’ turn as Tad kicks things off with a smooth, lyrical rendition of “My Buddy”, followed by Peter’s silky smooth delivery of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”, culminating with an earnest and expressive “I’ll Be Seeing You” by Kalvin. To top it off, they then join together to harmonize a round-de-lay of all three songs performed in unison (and yes, they do go together–and it’s thrilling to hear!)
With a quartet of Choreographers, you can bet there’s plenty of fancy-stepping the whole way through this one, showcasing many differing, sometimes unexpected, genres. For example, the iconic “White Christmas” not only offers outstanding vocals, but into the mix the ensemble performs some dapper fan-kicks and sprightly pirouettes, during which Co-Choreographer Kady Lawson goes into some eye-popping “splits’ before her “Boys” raise her up high over their heads (–this gal’s got the goods, and the production is surpassingly stronger for all her contributions!)
“Baby It’s Cold Outside” is another vivacious group endeavor with this Oscar-winning song’s original ‘comedic’ intent (as depicted in the 1949 film “Neptune’s Daughter”,) which features a ‘hot-to-trot’ female chasing a shy, retiring male, placed firmly at the center! (In the end, she even sweeps HIM off his feet and carries him off!) Count this one as a definite highlight of the show! This is immediately followed by a rousing group intermezzo set to “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” which even breaks into a snazzy “Charleston” before they’re through. It’s like one great recital of your holiday favorites one on top of the other, and it all leads into the first act closer, a hip, jivin’ “What Christmas Means To Me”. Staged as a 1960’s inspired “Go-Go” divertissement à la such popular teen dance programs of the era like “American Bandstand” or “Hullabaloo”, they punctuate the already rockin’ maneuvers with some fantastic acrobatics and ‘groovy’ steps like “The Pony” and “The Twist”.
The fun and fantastic performances continue when the second act curtain opens to reveal a breathtaking scene right out of Victorian England (as would be found in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”.) There, with ladies clad in elegant velvety ball gowns and silk bonnets, and men clothed in dapper top hats, and waistcoats with tails, they perform more traditional hymns and other Christmastide canticles, including “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, “Silent Night” and a sumptuous à cappella take on “Carol of the Bells”–even urging the audience to join them in a full-house sing-along (with printed lyric sheets in each program.) This portion is actually quite moving (and it’s not like we don’t already know these time-honored carols, starting with “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” and ending with an uplifting chorus of “Joy To The World”.) It’s a whimsical way to launch Act Two, before we learn that the reason “Mrs. C” and company have been brought to this stately place, is because “Cicely” has used the globe to alter time and erase their North Pole Fantasyland home completely from existence!
Now they have to work extra hard to get the globe and put things to rights once again in time for “Santa” to head out on his yearly trip in that famous flying sleigh. This plot set-up also cleverly resolves a question many over the last few decades have asked, as the “North Pole” has become less and less an isolated ‘concept’ and more of an actual—and active—place on the planet. In this stage-reality, Santa and Company undeniably do reside at the top of the world, but in a magical fantasy wonderland that can only be accessed if one wholeheartedly believes in the magic of Christmas.
As the focal point for all the hub-bub, “Mrs. Claus” (AKA “Agatha Frost”) pretty much drives most of the on-stage intrigues. As “Mrs. Claus”, Adriana Sanchez can very probably claim that she’s developed something of a following with her role throughout the show’s many incarnations –painting her as a comical mix of JoAnne Worley, Phyllis Diller and Marge Simpson, while managing to make all their qualities uniquely her own. Even better is that it allows her to make the most of both her venerable singing talent AND her expert comedic abilities. She particularly shines leading the group in “It’s Today”, immediately followed by “We Need A Little Christmas” –both from the iconic musical “Mame” (and each give the unfolding escapades a jovial boost toward the end of Act One.) As her ‘sister’ “Cicely Frost”, Hannah Clair also does a knock-out job in the “Villainess” role, keeping with the frequently raucous-but-heartfelt tone of the overall program, while on no account being “too cautious” about going a little ‘over-the-top’ with her portrayal; but then, “Cicely” is, at her core, a narcissistic (–albeit ‘faded’) Diva with designs on world, or at least Holiday, domination. Just as impressive is learning that Ms. Clair stepped into the role near the last minute! She too, has an accomplished way with conveying a song as she does with “I Put A Spell On You”, wherein the evil “Ms. Frost” is bathed in shocking green lights as she ‘enchants” ol’ “Père Noël” and his band of “Workshop Elves”. Before the conclusion of our tale, she comparably demonstrates a pleasant sensitivity with her 11 O’ Clock charmer, “A Change In Me” (from Disney’s hit stage-adaptation of “Beauty And The Beast”.) Every bit as pleasing too, is “Cicely” and “Mrs. Claus’s” duet of the quintessential festive-season standard, “Jingle Bells”, here staged as both a comic battle of one-upmanship–and a side-splitting homage to Barbra Streisand’s…uh…distinct recording of that song.
Then again, if “Mrs. Claus” is the show’s protagonist and “Cicely” is its counterpoint, it’s “Ernie” (the ‘Transportation Elf” in charge of guarding the magic snow globe,) who keeps the show flowing (–at times, in warp-speed!) As “Ernie”, Brian Bolanos is grandly ebullient in his characterization, always making the most of every sight-gag or punchline, while also exhibiting a refreshing geniality. Shayna Gayer—another familiar face on “The Gem Theatre” stage, does a stand-out job as “Cicely’s” much put upon “Minion-with-a heart”, “Marian”. Laudable too,
is Hunter Nelson whose “Dear Mr. Santa”, leading into the act break is a comic delight in its own right, as the seemingly shy young ‘elf’ lets us in on his special wish for December 25th : A real live “Show Girl” to call his own! (Well, it can’t ALL be for the kids!) Erica Baldwin, herself always a welcome presence at “The Gem”, thoroughly amazes several times over the course of the show, especially with “The Christmas Waltz (It’s That Time Of Year)”, as the rest of the cast waltz gracefully and gleefully around her; as well as during her verses of “Oh, Holy Night”. Kudos also go out to the younger members of the cast, who overflow with surprising talent (not to mention enviable agility) that belie their youthful years. Billed as “The Workshop Elves” they include Brynn Sparkle Reid, Kathryn Reid, Jordan Seto, Greer Smith and Sydney Sublette. On more than one occasion all through the proceedings, these kids prove to be the production’s A-One secret to enhancing the “WOW” factor significantly! And let’s not forget Damien Lorton either–who once again makes a terrific “Santa Claus”! If this time out, “Santa” has withdrawn a little to make way for the other characters, he nonetheless manages to make his substantial presence felt—predominantly when leading the rousing finale: “Be A Santa” (from the musical Jule Styne/Comden & Green “Subways Are For Sleeping”,) as we find that, in order to make up for lost time, he presses his helpers into service as a merry band of “Father Christmases” themselves gratis his invention “The Santa-tizer”. This sees the ‘elves’ transformed before our eyes, leading them to a magnificent kick-line of Santas that is, frankly, worth the cost of admission alone!
This year’s staging similarly benefits abundantly from “OMP’s” recent investment in new lights, stage mics and other theatrical ‘toys’ which, as Mr. Lorton apprised “First-Nighters”, are making their debut with this production. Upon entering the auditorium, the sounds of brisk winter winds greet and seemingly surround you—compliments of the pristine sound design by Dan Baird, while the brilliant (and uber-colorful) Lighting Design by Jon Hyrkas oft-times borders on psychedelic—taking full advantage of the new lighting effects he’s been granted, including a nifty, multi-hued, ‘swirling effect’ to connote the change of time and place. Certainly not to be overlooked either are the scads of absolutely phenomenal costumes by Luis Cornejo (think “The Donny & Marie Show” meets “Currier And Ives”.) This is a show with LOTS of costumes and costume changes, and thanks to Cornejo’s insight and efficacious choices, they never fail to dazzle (–and then some!) Not in any way to be overlooked either is the remarkable work from the musicians who, though unseen, essentially allow thew show to both ‘sing’ and ‘dance’: Adrian Rangel and Richard Abraham on Piano, Jimmy Beal on Bass and Jeff Segal on Drums.
Be assured, this hidden treasure of the holiday season is hidden no more: “The Holiday GEM” is back and local theatergoers are sure to be that much merrier for it! Having officially opened on Saturday evening, November 27th, “The Holiday GEM” is slated to run through Sunday December 19th, 2020, at “The Gem Theatre” located at 12852 Main St, Garden Grove, CA. Showtimes are Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM, with Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM. (There will be additional Saturday Matinees on December 4th, 11th, and 18th, also at 2:00 PM.) Tickets may be obtained on-line by logging onto: www.TheGemOC.com or by calling “The Gem Theatre” box-office at (714) 741-9550 x.221. (ADA Seating is available upon request; Group Tickets are also available for this engagement.)
Production Stills By Ron Lyon Courtesy Of “One More Productions”; Special Thanks To Damien Lorton, Nicole Cassesso, Tad Fujioka, Shauna Bradford And The Cast & Crew Of “One More Productions” 2021 Edition Of “The Holiday Gem” For Making This Story Possible.