We're in that limbo time now, darlings. The presents have all been unwrapped, some of them broken, but there are still a few bedraggled rum balls and wreaths hanging around the old homestead until the New Year. It's time for another injection of holiday spirit, my jolly little elves, and what could be a bigger pain in the arm than a Christmas play? Holiday theater has been a tradition for my beloved hubby, the Filthy Critic, and me for a few years now, and I've learned that the supply of bad theater in my community is seemingly endless. What luck!
Indeed, we have community theater practically in our own backyard. The Festival Playhouse in Olde Town Arvada is stumbling distance from my dear Filthy's favorite watering hole, the Arvada Tavern, but we had never attended a play there before. Imagine! Actually, every time we tried to get tickets to the Festival Playhouse, it was sold out. That just made me even more curious. Heavens, what could I be missing?
The building that houses the Festival Playhouse used to be the old grange hall back when Arvada was the Celery Capital of the World. Built in 1874, the building is almost as old as the town itself. It's been a theater for about 40 years, though, and the Player's Guild acting troupe has inhabited it for 10 of those years. Charles and Donna Ault, who manage the troupe (and suspiciously, seem to be in every single one of the plays), have decorated the interior with dozens of Mardi Gras posters and masks. There's also a big box of hats and other props for the kids to play with, and big cookies on sale for a buck.
This year, I wasn't going to be left out in the cold - I was going to get my annual amateur theater fix at the Festival Playhouse. I called the theater a few weeks in advance and ordered up two tickets for "The Christmas Express." Poor Filthy wasn't exactly excited about my score; he regarded the prospect of watching a bunch of locals emoting with the same degree of enthusiasm that he had for my Layered Christmas Gelatin Salad Surprise. My husband, my little candy canes, is a meat and potatoes man, especially potatoes. At least he seemed to warm up to the task when I pointed out how close we would be to the Arvada Tavern.
"The Christmas Express," written by Pat Cook, is one of those plays about the Magic of Christmas. I put that phrase in capital letters, because when people on stage say Magic of Christmas, everyone is supposed to grow quiet and nod their awe-struck heads in understanding...as if more community theater is all the world needs to be a little kinder, a little gentler. Now I like my Christmas entertainment as much as the next gal, but I certainly wouldn't stake my soul on it.
When the curtain opens, Hilda (Donna Ault) the sulky train station manager and Satch (Dave Brandl) the lackadaisical porter are bickering in a way that only small town folks who have spent way too much time with each other can. Then, a stout, rosy-cheeked fellow by the name Leo Tannenbaum (get it?) arrives in the station...without a train. He seems a pretty strange bird; not only does he insist that he was indeed on a train, but he can also fix radios and issue aphorisms with impunity. Leo (Charles Ault) also wears a velvet scarf. You can bet that raises some eyebrows in a small town!
Immediately, Leo starts harping on Hilda and Satch to make the station a little more Christmas-y. Hilda, who is plenty bitter since her father died, doesn't see the point of decorating, since she thinks it's a matter of time until the railroad is going to discontinue service to Holly (get it?), their rapidly declining town. But Satch falls right into lockstep behind Leo, "nuzzling up to him like a check from home." Yes, my dears, these folks have quaint-itis, in which all people from small towns spread the cutesy similes as thick as "hot butter on a muffin."
But Leo isn't the only stranger in Holly. Another guy walks into the station, and he's everything Leo isn't. Mr. Fairfax (Jim Hoover) is tall and skinny and can barely peep two words without bolting. This man is unlikely to fix anyone's watch or give any advice. Right away, rumors begin to circulate in the little town. Is Leo some fruitcake who escaped from the sanitarium? Is the Mr. Fairfax a railroad representative who will issue the death sentence for the train station?
Meanwhile, Leo produces a beautiful Christmas tree. Everyone wonders where it came from, but since his name is Mr. Tannenbaum, I think he must have the ability to cough them up like furballs. He also directs the town choir in slightly off-key carols (my spouse almost left the theater when they started singing!) and fixing the troubled marriage of Jerry Cummings (Shawn Northcutt) and his bratty child-bride Donna Fay (Devin Seligsohn). The only conclusion within the universe of the play is that Mr. Tannenbaum must be an angel. This play is one of those works that believes angels are merely celestial handymen; they exist to fix mankind's golf swing, love life and appliances. Forget that "sore afraid" stuff in the Bible!
And then, mes amis, we have the real Christmas miracle: Leo finds a letter from Hilda's father. As soon as Leo reads it, this hard, skeptical woman melts into a big puddle of sap. We then learn that Leo's train, the Christmas Express, "isn't just a train... it's a feeling!" In the corny climax, Leo informs Hilda that her dead dad is riding the Christmas Express. Hilda begs Leo to let her join him and her dad on the Feeling / Ghost Train, no matter if that means she will be dead, too. What a dark suicidal turn! Anyway, she stays in Holly, as does the lazy porter, Mr. Fairfax the escaped nutcase, the reunited couple and all of the other town characters. They learn their small town will be the next target of developers, and the train station will stay open. And then they sing some more, because of the Magic of Christmas.
You can probably tell from this synopsis, sweeties, that "The Christmas Express" is pure cornpone. And, there was certainly some hoot-worthy acting; the young man who played the estranged groom Jerry must've just been plucked from the audience that very evening. "Now I am really mad," he said with furrowed brow, but I thought maybe he was just having difficulty reading an eye chart. Mr. Tannenbaum, who was also the director, kept forgetting his lines. The shame, sir!
The ladies playing Hilda and Donna Fay did better, because it's always easier to play snippy. Actually, I think perhaps they are truly snippy women, which is even better. And each kid in the audience got a genuine candy cane from shy, loony Mr. Fairfax. I also thought they did a good job making the set look as sad and lonely as real-life train stations. Finally, I'm glad that I finally satisfied my curiosity about the eternally sold-out Festival Playhouse; now I don't have to spend 10 bucks for their production of "On Golden Pond" in February. I can be thankful for small favors. Happy new year, my loves!
"The Christmas Express"
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