Saturday, December 3, 2011

Pit and Balcony's "Christmas Express" a charming ride

review by Janet I. Martineau
As a play, it is lightweight, predictable and overly sentimental.
But I liked it, I really liked it  ...Pit and Balcony Community Theatre’s production of “The Christmas Express,” which opened Friday night.
Because, first and foremost, it is something newer and different in the  Christmas collection, not overly done like “A Christmas Carol” and “White Christmas.”
Second, its script by Pat Cook is smart -- full of puns, one-liners, funny situations and nutty characters, making it a comedy amid its sentimentality about the power of hope in our lives.
And third, director Jessica Asiala has assembled a worthy cast -- none of them overplays or underplays his or her character; none is a standout but collectively deliver a solid ensemble feel;  their characters are convincingly played as small-town hicks -- lovable despite being eccentric.
Asiala also knows how to block what is essentially a one-set play, taking place inside a train station with only its ticket booth, one bench and four doors behind which we never see. This could have led to a deadly stagnant play, but she keeps the 10 characters moving in a natural yet active flow.
While we are tempted to share some of the witty lines and puns, we will not so you can enjoy the discovery. Except to tease you to think about how one might play. The small town is Holly (and how appropriate, eh, that Michigan really has a small town named Holly not too far from Saginaw).
Anyway, the town is Holly. One of the characters purchases something at the town’s pawn shop. Now, guess the name of that pawn shop. It’s an old groaner.
The storyline finds these residents of Holly in a pre-Christmas funk -- especially the train station manager, a female Scrooge played by Judy Harper. Business is down, the station’s radio does not work, all she gets is junk mail, she hates Christmas.
“She’s in a mood,” other characters keep noting when she goes off on a tangent.
Enter a white-haired old gentleman who says his name is Leo Tannenbaum (played as ever-so-kindly by Michael Olk)  ...and suddenly strange things start happening, strange POSITIVE things to the radio, the attitudes of the people, and even set pieces which seem to magically appear.
Harper is hilarious throughout, and particularly when she is assigned one of the parts in the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” 
It is the singing of this song that provides one of the two best-played ensemble moments, with every cast member involved in it clicking on all cylinders. 
The song is conducted by city hall worker Linda Rebney, a rather uptight woman who suffers fools badly and dresses badly. Add in Kevin Profitt, the station’s handyman who ain’t too bright; mail carrier Amanda Houthoffd, a kinda naive sort,  and newspaper reporter Mary Margaret Fletcher, not too bright  herself because she forgets to ask the name of Tannenbaum when she interviews him.
By the time they are done butchering “Twelve Days,” and Rebney trying to cope with it, we will never hear it again without laughing.
The second best-played ensemble moment involves Fletcher and Profitt again, with the rest of the cast reacting to them on target. 
In it, Pamela and Tim Barnes, a real-life married couple, portray a Holly couple splitting up.  She is at the station to buy a ticket and go home to mother.
Tannenbaum is trying to get to the bottom of their marital distress by talking with them, is making little headway on what caused the Big Spat, and then, out of nowhere, Fletcher (25 years absent  from the stage)  and Profitt (in one of his best acted roles at Pit) act out what probably happened -- their voices rising in heat as the pretend battle ensues and the rest of the cast watches in amazement. It’s a sidesplitter.
Opening night had some issues with the train sound effect, a couple of microphone cues and the sound coming out of Houthoffd’s microphone. Other than that, nothing to complain about.
Come early to the show to enjoy some hot chocolate and Christmas cookies, then sit back and enjoy some great laughs.

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