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Philadelphia Spotlight: December 2004

Let the Memory Live Again

The cast of Cats at the Walnut Street Theatre
(Photo © Mark Garvin)
Thank goodness for online shopping! With all the shows on tap in Philly this December, theatergoers may find it difficult to make time for a lot of holiday shopping at area stores. But instead of old chestnuts such as Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the focus this year is on contemporary plays, many of which are either world or local premieres.

Now that the Broadway run and world tours have concluded, the rights are available for Andrew Lloyd Webber's longtime favorite Cats and the Walnut Street Theatre has it in a massive production currently up and running at the company's Center City theater through January 9. Featuring Colleen McMillan's gorgeous costumes, Jeffrey S. Koger's prominent lighting, and Peter Barbieri Jr.'s gigantic junkyard set, director/choreography Richard Stafford's visually dazzling production differs noticeably from Trevor Nunn's original staging, but is in no way less extravagant.

Phillip Barry, a playwright who showed his knowledge of the area's upper crust in The Philadelphia Story, likewise examines the world of high society and high finance in his popular screwball comedy Holiday (December 2-19). Produced by the Bristol Riverside Theatre, Barry's comedy satirizes the social constrictions of big business. Gerritt VanderMeer stars as the irrepressible Johnny Case and Lynette Knapp as the independent Julia, but in director Susan D. Atkinson's production, keep an eye on exceptional local character actor John Peakes, who would seem to be perfectly cast as Julia's demanding father Edward.

Introducing contemporary British pantomime to local audiences, the People's Light & Theatre Company is presenting Gary Smith's Sleeping Beauty: A Comic in the British Style. Unlike the American form with its black-clad mimes, modern British pantomime, which often satirizes social issues, is typically staged as a classic fairy tale with a heavy dose of songs and vaudeville. The new adaptation by Kathryn Petersen and composer Vince di Mura has its world premiere at the company's Malvern home December 3 through January 2.

Since creating their own original holiday shows in 2000 with the spectacularly funny The Big Time: Vaudeville for the Holidays, 1812 has been the place to go for a dose of holiday cheer, and they are particularly busy this season with not one but two shows. Like past 1812 holiday shows, which have alternately focused on vaudeville, comics of the1950s and 60s, and the evolution of improvisational groups, the new Always a Lady: A Celebration of Funny Women for the Holidays (December 3 through January 5) draws its inspiration from comedy's rich history, specifically the great comediennes of the 20th century. Exploring the contributions of such innovators as Marie Dressler, Phyllis Diller, and Whoopi Goldberg through skits and songs, Lady would appear to be the perfect vehicle for the various talents of its popular stars Jilline Ringle and Jennifer Childs. For good measure 1812 is also presenting an encore staging of Bat Boy: The Musical. Easily the most fun show of the 2002-2003 season (and one of the most popular, selling out 28 of its 30 performances), the one-night only concert performance on December 13 reunites the entire original cast in a benefit for 1812.

30 year-old Sarah Ruhl is arguably the hottest playwright in America, and Philadelphians will get the opportunity to sample her talents when the Wilma Theater presents Ruhl's The Clean House, running December 8 through January 9. Ruhl's comedy about family dysfunction is a strange choice for the usually serious-minded company, which may explain why highly acclaimed guest director Daniel Fish has been enlisted to lead the production.

The Arden Theatre Company, which has a history of presenting top-flight children's fare, is presenting the local premiere of Robert and Willie Reale's amiable musical A Year with Frog and Toad (December 11-January 23). Based on Arnold Lobel's whimsical stories about the relationship between the cheerful Frog and cranky Toad, the show boasts some of the catchiest -- and cleverest -- tunes in Children's Theatre. Featuring powerful baritone Jeffrey Coon (Frog) and the city's current musical theater sensation Ben Dibble (Toad), Frog and Toad is so consistently delightful that even adults without children should put this on their must-see list.

Speaking of odd marriages between companies and plays, Theatre Exile, one of Philadelphia's most daring progressive theaters, opens their eighth season with D.L. Coburn's classic 1978 Pulitzer Prize winner The Gin Game (December 17-January 2). An alternative to the cheery holiday shows, Coburn's two-hander explores the contentious relationship between an elderly man and woman in a retirement home. Starring veteran actors Harry Philibosian and Jane Moore, Coburn uses gin (the card game, not the booze) as a metaphor for the two's difficult lives.


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