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Pittsboro, NC-based Ride Again Productions rides again with a charming 70-minute, one-act musical version of The Christmas Letters, artfully adapted from the nostalgic novella by Grundy, VA native Lee Smith and smartly staged by dramatist/director Paul Ferguson. Performed Nov. 30-Dec. 3 and Dec. 7-10 in Studio 6 of Swain Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a benefit performance for the North Carolina Children’s Hospital and DooR to DooR, The Christmas Letters employs the chatty holiday encyclicals of the title to paint a vivid warts-and-all portrait of three generations of a typical Southern family, from 1944 to 1996.
Karren Pell, Tom House, and Tommy Goldsmith—collectively known as “The Reckon Crew”—wrote the show’s Southern-fried score; and musical director Shannon O’Neill and the toe-tapping trio of musical director Bill McCormick (guitar, kazoo, tambourine), Bryon Settle (guitar, dobro, mandolin), and Stu Cole (stand-up bass, drum) provide sprightly instrumental accompaniment for the simple but touching series of songs that reveal the characters’ deepest feelings.
Gigi DeLizza is terrific as the irrepressible Birdie Pickett, a bright-eyed Blue Gap, WV girl who impulsively elopes with fellow teenager Bill Pickett (Eric Kallin) and nevertheless lives happily ever after despite being saddled for most of her marriage with taking care of Bill’s cantankerous elderly mom (Cristina Garcia). Ride Again producer Andrea Powell is likewise excellent as Bill and Birdie’s daughter, Mary Pickett Copeland, a whiz with her schoolwork who marries Sandy Copeland (Southey Blanton) and cuts short her education to help him build the family construction business, then later decides to go back to college, so that she can pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a writer.
Katherine Rogers Simonsen is cute as a bug as Sandy and Mary Copeland’s daughter Melanie, whose decision to dust off and reread six decades of the family’s Christmas letters serves as a springboard for this intimate down-home musical about love and marriage and the stress that natural disasters, work, adultery, and children puts on families.
Gigi DeLizza, Andrea Powell, and Katherine Simonsen not only provide vivid vignettes as Lee Smith’s plucky heroines, who are three truly unforgettable characters. But Eric Kallin is also good as farmer-turned-merchant Bill Pickett, as well as Mary and Sandy Copeland’s son Andy, whose onstage birth gets on of the show’s biggest laughs; Southey Blanton gives a slick performance as ultra-ambitious workaholic builder Sandy Copeland; Allan Maule adds come crisp cameos as Bill Pickett’s feckless father Slone and emotionally disturbed son Joe, who comes back from Vietnam a different boy, plus stuffy Professor Rutledge and the amiable, amorous drunk Peter Waterford; and Cristina Garcia provides comic relief as the grumpy and impossible-to-please Mrs. Pickett, Melanie Copeland’s perky twin Claire, etc.
Adapter/director Paul Ferguson’s 70-minute, one-act rendition of The Christmas Letters—with its script cut down from a two-act, two-hour version and its song lyrics occasionally abbreviated, too—nevertheless captures the warmth and wit of Lee Smith’s epistolary novel. But the show still needs work to approach the lofty level of work of Paul Ferguson’s previous musicals, such as The Devil’s Dream and Good Ol’ Girls.
Scenic designer Rob Hamilton has come up with a novel concept for the set, expertly employing wooden frames around the edges of the stage, as well as several wooden door frames on rollers, to serve as picture frames for stop-action poses. Hamilton also creates more picture frames to frame the cast, one or two at a time, in the set’s family-album-like backdrop; and lighting designer Steve Dubay’s skillful illumination helps facilitate the almost cinematic transition from scene to scene.
All in all, despite some minor caveats, this Reader’s Digest version of The Christmas Letters really is something to write home about; and buying tickets to these benefit performances for North Carolina Children’s Hospital and DooR to DooR is a great way to start the holiday season—on just the right note.
Ride Again Productions presents The Christmas Letters Thursday-Saturday, Dec. 7-9, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 10, at 3 p.m. in Studio 6 of Swain Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $12 ($7 UNC students with ID). 919/843-3333. Ride Again Productions: http://www.rideagain.org/. Lee Smith: http://www.leesmith.com/. The Christmas Letters: http://www.leesmith.com/works/letters.php. North Carolina Children's Hospital: http://www.unchealthcare.org/site/NCChildrensHospital [inactive 4/08]. DooR to DooR: http://planetree.med.unc.edu/DooRtoDooR.html.