“Christmas Spectacular 2005”
2005 Season

Celebrating Christmas all through the ages


December 21, 2005

Gateway's new and improved holiday spectacle is a Christmas show, so ecumenicists and PC police, consider yourselves alerted. "A Century of Christmas" is largely a secular celebration of the Christian holiday that falls just after the winter solstice, with mentions of Jesus, creches, the Virgin Mary and even Christmas trees.

This is not the same show Gateway premiered two years ago. It has been "digitally remastered," masterfully so for the most part. The conceit is to revisit a century's worth of Christmases a decade at a time, from the Currier & Ives-style backdrop evoking the turn of the 20th century, to a 1990s celebrity-worshiping "All I Want for Christmas."

Along the way, Jessica Wright accompanies herself on fiddle in a comically overdressed "Button Up Your Overcoat." A Depression-era love scene retells O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi." A 1940s USO show delivers Irving Berlin's brand-new hit "White Christmas," complete with palm-tree prologue sung by Jared Bradshaw. A tacky Miami Christmas pays Hawaiian shirt homage to the '50s, culminating in Chris Yates' "Blue Christmas."

The shtick propels into a hilarious Catholic school Nativity pageant, with children catechismically cracked into shape by a nun (Robin Irwin). That scene in turn segues into an unabashed First Christmas procession, complete with manger and live menagerie (just as in the "Radio City Christmas Spectacular").

The momentum toward intermission makes Act I hard to follow. While the 1970s play-within-a-play "Tree Sellers Protest" could be expanded into a one-act, director DJ Salisbury cannot quite sustain the pace over two and a half hours. Kristen Maloney plays a hippie chick determined to save trees from being sacrificed for Christmas, along with her bemused Jewish boyfriend, who delivers the show's only nod to Hanukkah, "Jerusalem in Gold."

It's an MTV world for the '80s, enhanced by set and projection designer Kelly Tighe, whose video-game motif reminds us of that decade's conspicuous consumption. The juggling and unicycle skills of T.J. Howell add a variety-show pastiche to scenes that re-create vaudeville and TV specials. But by the '90s, our hunger for nostalgia wears thin and the Santa Claus finale - three numbers' worth - leaves us a trifle weary. With judicious trims, "A Century of Christmas" could yet become a lasting holiday classic, so let the tweaking continue. They're on the right sleigh track.

A CENTURY OF CHRISTMAS. Conceived by Robin Joy Allan for Gateway Playhouse. At Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts, 71 E. Main St. through Jan. 1. Tickets $25-$41. Call 631- 286-1133. Seen on opening night, Friday.

review: a century of christmases

For their ‘Holiday Spectacular’ at the Patchogue Theater for the Performing Arts, Gateway Playhouse’s Artistic Director Robin Joy Allan chose to use everything from traditional songs and carols blended with multi-media lighting and sound, to chorus girls, live animals, enthusiastic winsome children and a live Nativity to evoke the spirit of Christmas in America throughout the decades, since 1900.

The scene was set with the full company listening to a rendition of the last part of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. As we were taken through the years, this fast- moving production also served to remind us of the social evolution of this country. For many in the audience it was a chance to delve back maybe twenty, or thirty, forty, or even fifty-plus years to bring back special memories of times and people now long gone. It allowed us to wonder as we watched the simple, ingenuous Christmases of the past and were able to compare them with the frenetic, materialistically-obsessed Christmas for so many today. We can ask ourselves whether all progress really is progress!

Even for those too young to have experienced them in person, this was a chance to get some idea of life at Christmas in the early part of the twentieth century when Vaudeville ruled, or the ‘40s when, for many servicemen in the Second World War, performances by the U.S.O. were their only links to home and those they were fighting for – no cell phones and e-mails then. In a lighter vein, the hilarious ‘60s skit with Kristin Mahoney, as the hippie protester bemoaning the fate of Christmas trees cut down in their prime, and Robin Irwin, as a Mama Cass-like figure, had the audience in hysterics. Robin also showed her versatility and excellent voice in many of the other numbers during the show.

The sets, costumes and characters were realistic and the whole company performed with enthusiasm and skill. Robert Anthony Jones brought a robust personality and voice to match his robust frame. (Was he the guy in the red suit in the finale by any chance?) Jared Bradshaw and Chris Yates displayed a wide range of abilities as they moved through the years and the varied musical styles required. Jessica Wright was another of the principals who showed how to deliver many different types of songs and carols.

Apart from the music, the audience loved both T.J. Howell for his dexterous juggling and his ability to ride unicycles both great and very, very small. They also appreciated the performing dogs in the animal act. It was nice to get a reminder of those vaudeville-type acts that today are rarely seen except on the stages of cruise ships, which have become the new homes of jugglers, magicians and the like.

The Rockettes certainly have set a standard that is hard to emulate, but the long-limbed beautiful girls of the Gateway’s chorus line were not only good to look at, but they can also really dance and their ensemble work was crisp and those long legs can really kick high!

Whenever you put children on stage, especially in a Christmas show, the eyes will be on them and there must have been many proud parents and grandparents watching as the cast of children showed talent and poise beyond their years.

Much has been written and talked of recently about the way segments of our society seem intent on trying to take Christmas out of the public arena. This is not the time and place to discuss it further, but it was good to see that Robin and Paul Allan were determined not to dilute the true meaning and significance of Christmas. The Nativity scene that closed the first half of the show was played out with feeling and I wonder how many eyes were moist as one of the child actors spoke the words that tell of how the Shepherds first heard those “Tidings of great joy”– I have to admit that mine were. As ‘”Silent Night” and “O Holy Night” were sung by the cast and audience, the living pageant of the Magi and animals, including a live camel, processed to the manger site in Bethlehem, the words of Ebenezer Scrooge, “I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year” came back with even increased meaning.

The theater was totally sold out for opening night and tickets for this show, which will run until January 1st are selling fast.

–Roy Bradbrook