Saturday, November 16, 2019

"Another Miracle on Christmas Lake" at Yellow Tree Theatre

One of my favorite #TCTheater holiday* traditions is Yellow Tree Theatre's original Minnesota comedies. It all began with Miracle on Christmas Lake in their first season way back in 2008, a play written quickly under pressure by co-founder Jessica Lind Peterson, that has turned into an Osseo sensation. It ran for several years, then inspired a sequel. After a few other unrelated original holiday comedies set Up North, Yellow Tree returned to the original Miracle on Christmas Lake last year, and this year are bringing us the sequel.** Full of the quirky and very Minnesotan characters we've come to love, but with a (mostly) all new cast of talented comedians, Another Miracle on Christmas Lake is a riot. I have a group of friends and co-workers I've been bringing to Yellow Tree for almost ten years, and we all agree that with everything going on in the world and at home right now, we just needed to laugh. There's no better place for that than this show. It continues through December 29, but like I said it's a sensation and their intimate theater space sells out, so get your tickets soon.

location scout Stefan (Neal Skoy) with Colin and Tess
(Damian and Anna Leverett) and Martha and Neil
(Elise Langer and Ryan Nelson, photo by Justin Cox)
The sequel returns us to the small Minnesota town of Christmas Lake, where Tess and Colin run the local community theater after moving back from NYC. Now with a baby, they're tasked with taking on the holiday pageant after the entire town comes down with the goat flu (which causes its victims to make strange bleating noises and eat garbage). But this isn't just any pageant, Christmas Lake is in danger of being annexed by the neighboring town Potterton unless they can come up with the funds to keep their town functioning independently. A successful pageant would impress a Hollywood location scout who's looking to film a remake of It's a Wonderful Life in small town Minnesota, starring Minnesotans Josh Hartnett and Jessica Biel. With most of the town sick, they have to rely on our favorite nerdy couple Neil and Martha, and a new character named Gunther, who we soon learn is Neil's rival for Martha's affections. The plot is all a bit convoluted, but it's really just an excuse for silly humor, Minnesota references, and showcasing this ridiculously talented cast.

Co-founder Jason Peterson directs the mostly new-to-Christmas-Lake ensemble, and really allows each of them to showcase their particular comedy skills, but still manages to keep the show (barely) on track. Real life married couple Anna and Damian Leverett play Tess and Colin, and are quite believable and sweet as the "normal" couple. Elise Langer takes on the role of Martha with all of her delightful quirks (hot dish! pet lizard! massage skills!). As they're rehearsing for the pageant, she goes into this long pantomime of cooking in the kitchen and it's brilliant and hilarious, sort of a break from the plot but such a delight to watch. The one exception to the new cast is Ryan Nelson,*** who has always played Neil at Yellow Tree, and always should. I can't imagine anyone else in the role. He has Neil's facial expressions, his bad impressions, his obsession with Little House on the Prairie, and his sweet love for Martha down pat. Martha and Neil are comedy gold, and Elise and Ryan play them beautifully. Speaking of comedy gold, Jason Ballweber (of Four Humors) is hilarious as Gunther, who is prone to flatulence and other awkward behavior. He also has a couple memorable turns as a pastor and Hollywood producer, for good measure. Rounding out the cast is Neal Skoy as the location scout Stefan Stefanovic, who is more than he seems to be, speaking with an at times incomprehensible over-exaggerated vaguely Eastern European accent. Everything about this show is over the top in the best way.

the pageant! (Damian Leverett, Ryan Nelson,
Elise Langer, and Neal Skoy, photo by Justin Cox)
Recycling last year's Miracle on Christmas Lake set (designed by Katie Phillips), the entire play takes place on the Christmas Lake theater stage that looks like a homey, cozy barn, with cute country Christmas decorations. The action spills off the stage and into the audience, so that in YTT's intimate space we're right in the middle of the action. The space is once again warmly lit by Courtney Schmitz, including some cool effects for the most hilarious slow-mo fight scenes. Costume designer Samantha Fromm Haddow also returns to dress the Christmas Lake residents in casual chic (Colin and Tess) or nerdy Minnesota (everyone else) gear, plus some cute and homey pageant costumes.

Yellow Tree's original holiday comedy tradition this year allows the talented new cast to really shine, while still being that sweet and goofy Minnesota story that regulars like me have come to love. It's a funny irreverent holiday show, not overly sweet, but still ends in a heart-warming moment with the cast singing a Blake Thomas*** original "A Little Bit of Lovin' and a Christmas Tree."

The hugely popular show continues through December 29, with as many as nine shows a week, many of which are sold out already. Best availability is on or after the 26th.

*Click here to read about all of the holiday shows I've seen this year.
**Don't worry if you haven't seen the original, it's not necessary to understand and enjoy this show. But if you're curious, Actors Theater of Minnesota is doing a production of the original Miracle on Christmas Lake at Camp Bar in December. Click here for more info.
***To hear more of Ryan Nelson's vocal talents and Blake Thomas' original songs, listen to Take It With You, live radio theater from Duluth! Available for free here, or wherever you find podcasts.