David Alford's return to the Tennessee Rep stage as part of the Rep's holiday celebration finds one of Nashville's most important theater artists in top form. Christmas Down Home, Alford's folksy two-act revue, blends Southern good cheer with classy musicianship and sincere storytelling — offering good bang for the Yuletide buck.
Noted as an actor, director and playwright — with noteworthy credits in each discipline — Alford occasionally showcases his skills as a musician, which he did as pianist in the Rep's radio play version of It's a Wonderful Life a few years back. For those who didn't know it, Alford is also a rock-solid rhythm guitarist and a pretty fair bluegrass singer, and we get a nice sampling of his unending versatility in this program.
Backed by a talented ensemble of instrumentalists — fiddle, upright bass, mandolin — plus actor-singers Erin Ramsey and Kahle Reardon, Alford plays host to a series of homey family stories, some Appalachian nostalgia, country-style caroling and light verse, all rendered with a warm seasonal touch.
Musical selections include "Go Tell It on the Mountain," a hip "Jingle Bells," an a cappella "Star of Wonder" (in the style of vocal group The Roches) and a "Silent Night" sing-along. Among the spoken-word pieces is poet Ogden Nash's comical "The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus."
Act 1 serves as fulsome prelude to the show's Act 2 cornerstone, Alford's reading of the Truman Capote short story "A Christmas Memory," first published in 1956, later broadcast on television in various versions and featured on recordings (including by Capote himself). Alford has performed this piece many times over, in Nashville and elsewhere, and it shows in his confident delivery of the tale of loneliness and simple hope during Christmastime in rural Alabama. Musical director Paul Binkley accompanies Alford's recitation with limpid acoustic guitar underscoring, and the remainder of Act 2 is graced with Binkley's stirring original arrangements of the hymns "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" and "O Holy Night." Brad Albin is the bassist; Toni Ferguson is on fiddle.
Good tidings and the lively arts come together beautifully in Christmas Down Home. Only two performances remain, and it's unquestionably worth the trip to TPAC.
As in recent years, GroundWorks Theatre artistic director Robert A. O'Connell has crafted an original holiday show. While The Very Different Christmas Dinner, playing at Darkhorse Theater through Dec. 18, offers up a workable idea, its execution is weak. O'Connell's slapdash setup supposedly has something to do with the characters in the old Dick Van Dyke Show, but there's no real linkage to the iconic '60s sitcom — only vague references. What we have here is a fantasy scenario with very little magic happening — and a concept that, frankly, is not well developed.
The setting is the present day. A married woman laments to her husband that she wants new guests at her yearly Christmas dinner. Ta-da! She gets her wish, the voice of God informing her that instead of the usual couples attending, she can expect surprise visitors. In they come, two by two — Abe Lincoln and Amelia Earhart, Oscar Wilde and Marilyn Monroe, Janis Joplin and Jesus of Nazareth.
Our heros Rob and Laura — played by real-life married couple Myra and Jonathan Stephens — set out to entertain their star-studded guest list, feeding them turkey and pouring them lots of wine, then listening as the personages relate revealing insider tidbits about their (past) famous lives.
O'Connell's script more often than not proves laughable, and that's not to mean laugh-filled. His jokes are either too esoteric or devoid of ready wit, and there's an inertia in the proceedings that smacks of an amateur theatrical staged only for the amusement of its writer and cast members. There are experienced players onstage — Chaz Howard, Trish Crist, Brian T. Hill, among them — but their attempts to rescue the evening from dusty dryness rarely do more than evoke an errant chuckle or two.
GroundWorks will be back in the new year with another original script, Unconditional, written by this production's co-star, Myra Stephens. That show will run March 2-10.
Actors Bridge Ensemble's one-weekend-only production of Will Eno's The Flu Season closed at Belmont's Black Box Theater on Dec. 11. This worthy piece of experimental theater is anchored by a seriocomic scenario about love's vicissitudes, with the story driven forward by the playwright's clever, reference-rich dialogue. Director Jessika Malone wisely employed swift pacing and quick entrances and exits from her cast of six, all members of ABE's so-called "Sideshow" troupe, which was conducting an experiment of its own, with some of the various players stepping out of their primary theatrical disciplines, as actors became designers and techies, and vice-versa.
The results were interesting and affecting, with Eno's coy, philosophically pitched story of young love blooming in a mental hospital delivering bittersweet messages by way of flesh-and-blood archetypal characters named Woman, Man, Doctor and Nurse. Two other characters, Prologue and Epilogue, function as narrators and ironic commentators, and are presented visually as possible dramatic descendants of Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Ricardo Puerta was stylish as Prologue, Josiah Gibbs playful as Epilogue. Mitch Massaro and Erin Randolph found the good-natured humor in their turns as the medical staffers, and Jaclyn Johnson and Michael Redman were the lovers, moving convincingly from youthful excitement to brooding disappointment.
ABE returns to action Feb. 17-26 with Garcia Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba, with Vali Forrister in the title role and Malone directing.
Finally, this busy week was punctuated by a surprise excursion with NashTrash Murder Mystery Dinner Tours. Nashville's noted Jugg Sisters, Sheri Lynn and Brenda Kay, are putting their Big Pink Bus into special duty with an, ahem, moving bit of theater, as bus-riding patrons become part of the performance of A Grand Ole Murder, an audience-interactive whodunit that plays out over two hours sandwiched around a scrumptious family-style meal at Monell's at the Manor on Murfreesboro Road.
A revolving cast that includes Hugh Britt, Janna Landry, Cinda McCain, Trey Palmer and Jay McMahon tells the story of nefarious doings at a certain world-famous country music concert hall/radio program. Clues get laid out on the first half of the bus trip, and after dinner, on the return home, audience members are called upon to name the perp.
For theatergoers seeking some divergent fun, Music City-themed laughs and a hearty meal — Monell's keeps the food coming, and it all tastes fresh — this lighthearted outing is can't-miss entertainment.
The Big Pink Bus departs from the Nashville Farmers' Market at 6:30 on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, plus it's available for private bookings. The show runs straight through the holiday season with the exception of Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve. Reservations can be made at nashtrash.com or by calling (800) 226-7300.
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