Sunday, November 26, 2023

"Christmas at the Local" by Theater Latte Da at the Ritz Theater

Now in their 26th season, Theater Latte Da has a knack for creating original holiday shows that become annual traditions. First A Christmas Carole Petersen, #TCTheater artist Tod Petersen's funny and poignant tribute to his mom and growing up in small town Minnesota, which debuted in their third season and has been produced numerous times over the years (including six shows at Crooners this year, December 16-20). Then came All is Calm, a documusical about the WWI Christmas Truce that premiered in 2007 and has gone through a few different iterations over the years, settling into a nearly perfect 70 minutes of theater that has toured all over the country including Off-Broadway, and was filmed in 2019 for a PBS special. And now we have Christmas at the Local, a "double feature" of Dylan Thomas' story A Child's Christmas in Wales and Maya Angelou's poem Amazing Peace, both set to music and tied together with other holiday songs performed by a group of friends hanging out at their local pub. It debuted last year, at which time I wrote, "it creates such a warm, cozy feeling of community, nostalgia, and hope that I want to visit every year (or every night)." If you didn't see it last year, it's a must-see in the tradition of Latte Da's lovely original holiday pieces. And if you did see it last year, then you know that it always feels warm, welcoming, and wonderful to return to The Local (continuing through December 31).

What follows is my (very slightly edited) review of last year's production.

the cast/band of Christmas at the Local (photo by Dan Norman)
In perhaps the most gentle beginning of a show I've ever seen, members of this eight-person multi-
talented cast of actor/ singer/ musicians enter the local pub one by one. As the audience continues to chat amongst themselves, they greet each other, shed their winter gear, pull their instruments out of their cases, and maybe play a little. It feels like the most welcoming neighborhood bar since Cheers. Eventually the songs start to take a little more form, the house lights darken so slowly you don't even realize it, and the show has begun. After a couple of eclectic holiday songs I'm sure I first heard on the MPR Morning Show** ages ago, the first story begins. A Child's Christmas in Wales is a charming story of just that, filled with such clear imagery and emotions that I began to feel nostalgia for my own Christmases Past, which were not spent anywhere near Wales. The music (by Cerys Matthews and Mason Neely) was originally written for a full orchestra and adapted by Music Director Jason Hansen for a folky collection of instruments, and I don't really remember anything specific about it other than it perfectly complements and enhances the emotions of the story, which is perhaps the best thing that could be set about a musical score.

When the first story ends in what feels like too short a time (the whole show runs about 75 minutes and leaves you wanting more), the next piece begins. Dr. Maya Angelou's poem Amazing Peace, written in 2005, is so bittersweet and hopeful, seemingly speaking directly to the current moment (specifically the Israel-Hamas War), that it brought tears to my eyes. Especially when accompanied by original music by local singer/songwriter Chastity Brown, another perfect marriage of text and music (not surprising, that's what Theater Latte Da does). Where the first story feels cozy, warm, and nostalgic, this second piece, with the door literally opened to let in the cold, dark night, feels starkly and painfully real.

storyteller Joy Dolo (with Quinn Shadko)
(photo by Dan Norman)
Larissa Kokernot takes over the direction duties this year (she co-directed last year with former Artistic Director Peter Rothstein), and brilliantly weaves together all of the seemingly different parts of the show. Songs and scenes flow smoothly from one to the next with few applause breaks to interrupt the flow. Along with this spectacular cast, they've created a lovely and believable community feel amongst the group. Performers include Phinehas Bynum, who also plays piano and keyboard; Spencer Chandler on accordion; everyone's favorite baritone with a baritone Bradley Greenwald; Music Director/ Orchestrator Jason Hansen on various instruments and also an equal member of the cast; Elizabeth Reese playing both saxophone and flute; Matt Riehle on various stringed and percussive instruments; fiddle player Quinn Shadko; and Joy Dolo as the proprietor of the pub and main storyteller, although the entire cast gets in on that action. They truly feel like a group of friends just hanging out, sharing stories and songs, like they would on any night, audience or no. They all have uniquely beautiful voices, and each has a moment (or many) to shine. And the group harmonies are divine. If anything, they're more comfortable with each other and the show than they were last year, with more moments of direct crowd engagement, bringing us into the fold of their companionship.

Last year's impressive full set returns: a detailed and authentic-looking pub, complete with a bar, a piano, a booth and other cozy seating areas, rustic chandeliers, a door and windows looking out on the dark and snowy night, and walls covered with photos, instruments, and memorabilia. It's the kind of place where I'd love to have a pint and hang out for a few hours. The lighting design helps to create that cozy feel, including lanterns hanging from the ceiling over the audience that darken and lighten at just the right moments. The cast is dressed in casual, cozy, chic winter wear, a little festive but not in an over-the-top ugly Christmas sweater kind of way (only classy Christmas sweaters and scarves in this pub). Finally and as always with Latte Da in this space, the sound mix of all the voices and instruments is perfect. (Scenic design by Benjamin Olsen, props design by Abbee Warmboe, lighting design by Marcus Dilliard, costume design by Amber Brown, sound design by C. Andrew Mayer).

Theater Latte Da has done it again. They've created an original holiday piece of music-theater that perfectly marries song and text and makes you feel all the feels, including nostalgia, comfort, and hope, and will hopefully become an annual tradition for years to come. Celebrate a magical Christmas at the Local now through December 31

I'll leave you with these words from Dr. Angelou.

We, Angels and Mortals, Believers and Non-Believers,
Look heavenward and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at our world and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at each other, then into ourselves
And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation.

Peace, My Brother.
Peace, My Sister.
Peace, My Soul.


*Read about all of the holiday shows I've seen this year here, and listen to the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers holiday preview episode of our podcast Twin Cities Theater Chat here

**For an eclectic selection of holiday songs that reminds of "The Morning Show" of the past, check out The Current's Holiday Stream.