For the Advocate

For theater aficionados December has been rich with holiday performances that run the gamut from musical reviews to the classics, and occasionally, campy reminders that the holidays bring out the child in all of us. This year, three theaters have tweaked their annual shows to reflect contemporary themes that give audiences traditional fare, with a flare. As in the case of theater in our region all year long, each venue brings tradition to their audiences in familiar, but fresh new ways.

“Home for the Holidays” at the Majestic Theater in West Springfield always has a traditional, family-friendly program of entertainment reminiscent of the old Andy Williams or Perry Como TV Specials, with a multi-generational cast singing traditional music as well as contemporary pop tunes. This year, the show was co-hosted by Ray Guillemette, Jr., and Ben Ashley, featuring some of the best voices in the Valley. Of course, there are special guest appearances—this year by The Grinch and of course, Santa Claus. Mitch Chakour directed and arranged the music, and Stephen Petit did an excellent job directing the entire cast in a lively, fun-filled performance that had the audiences laughing and singing along. As one satisfied patron was heard to say, “This is always the best part of the season for me.”

The cast of “Home for the Holidays” at the Majestic Theater

Another tradition was revived this year at Hartford Stage with “A Christmas Carol,” the seasonal favorite that was on hiatus during the peak pandemic years. Former Artistic Director Michael Wilson returned to direct his original adaptation of the Dickens’ classic, and this colorful extravaganza mixes the classic tale with special opulent costumes, effects including flying ghosts and a multi-generational cast that includes the first African-American Scrooge, played brilliantly by Allen Gilmore.

Noble Shropshire as Jacob Marley in “A Christmas Carol” at Hartford Stage.

Some perennial favorites returned this year, with the delightful Noble Shropshire, who doubles as Jacob Marley’s ghost and Mrs. Dilbert, but there are always new faces on stage. This year Valley resident Hero Marguerite took the stage as Mrs. Cratchit. She’s an actress with a wonderful career ahead of her, as she demonstrated to audiences this summer in “I Hope I Die Before I Get Old” at CitySpace in Easthampton—a bold production written by and starring John Fetter and directed by The Advocate’s Theater Critic Emeritus, Chris Rohmann. Marguerite was also a charming young theater group participant in Chester Theatre’s highly successful summer production of “Circle Mirror Transformation.”

Hartford Stage has maintained a high standard for technical wizardry. This year’s “Christmas Carol” could be considered a family-friendly show, but very young children might find the ghosts a little too believable. Without a doubt, this production pulls out all the stops and glows with the feeling of the magic of the holiday.

The wackiest of the holiday fare on stage was undoubtedly the collection of plays written by established playwrights at TheatreWorks of Hartford, where all of the characters in the each play is familiar to audiences who grew up with televised portrayals of characters like Charlie Brown, Cindy Lou Who, and Hermy the Elf, among others. “Christmas on the Rocks” takes place in a seedy bar on Christmas Eve. The bartender, played this year by Richard Kline, formerly of television’s “Three’s Company” fame, is world weary, but Kline is the perfect straight man to Harry Bouvy, who plays all of the male characters, and Jen Cody, who plays all of the female characters. The result is a hilarious parade of quirky characters we recognize from television shows we watched as children who are now grown up, with grown up problems appropriately showcased in sad neighborhood bar. How can you not smile when you see the grown up ”Ralphie” from “A Christmas Story” with an eyepatch, now that he’s an instructor for the NRA? One of this year’s additions is a tip of the hat to Barbie, who reflects the characters of the era, but who brings a special splash of pink to the holiday decorations.

Under Rob Ruggiero’s direction, the evening moves at breakneck pace. Who knew all of those years watching holiday specials at the electronic hearth would finally pay off, as we reflect on childhood memories tempered with adult realities?

And the Winners of The Berkie Awards Are….

For the last seven years the Berkshire Theater Critics Association has been honoring outstanding Berkshire theaters, performances, and productions with the ”Berkie” Awards at the end of the season. This year’s awards were presented November 13, and while I lack enough space to identify all 27 award winners in 22 categories, theater goers who travelled to the Berkshires this year may be pleased to note some of their favorites have been duly rewarded.

Barrington Stage Company was the big winner of the evening with a total of 9 awards. “Cabaret,” was the biggest winner of the night as Outstanding Musical Production in a tie with “Something Rotten” at the Sharon Playhouse. “Cabaret” also won the award for Best Direction of a Musical” for Alan Paul, Best Lead Actress in a Musical for Krista Rodriquez, and the Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in A Musical for Richard Kline (yes, the same Richard Kline who just appeared in Hartford in “Christmas on the Rocks.”) Both Wilson Chin’s scenic design, Katie Spelman’s choreography, Rodrigo Munoz’s costumes, and Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting design all won the Awards in their respective categories.

More kudos to Barrington Stage were presented for Kenneth Tigar’s Outstanding Solo Performance in “The Happiest Man on Earth,” and writer Mark St. Germain received the Award for a World Premiere of a Play or Musical for his adaptation of the memoire of the same name by Nazi concentration camp survivor, Eddie Jaku. Ron Lagomarsino received one of the Outstanding Direction of a Play Awards for “Happiest Man…” in a three-way tie with Ariel Bock for “Dear Jack, Dear Louise,” at Shakespeare & Co., and Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill’s direction of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Rep-Albany.

Perennial favorite, Mark H. Dold once again took home the Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Play for his role in “Faith Healer” at Barrington Stage.

Honors for the Outstanding Production of a Play resulted in a two-way tie, with August Wilson’s “Fences” as one winner at Shakespeare & Co., in which Brian D. Coats won for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Play, and “East of Berlin” at the Bridge Street Theatre as the other winner in this category.

Berkshire Theater Group was also honored with an award for Rebecca Brooksher in “Photograph 51,” as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Play, and Billy Rude, in “Million Dollar Quartet” as the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Musical.

As we bid adieu to 2023, we look forward to an exceptional 2024 in theater throughout our region. I’ll be looking for the gems, and when I find them, I’ll let you know. That’s my mission, because as you know, Theater Matters.