Non-Traditional Christmas Music Makes Surflight Holiday Show Soar

By Rick Mellerup | Dec 10, 2019
Photo by: Studio 63

Beach Haven, NJ — Surflight Theatre’s 2019 holiday show is “’Tis the Season,” is an original, which will run through this Sunday, Dec. 15.

Now, there are a slew of Christmas films, especially if you add the Hallmark Channel’s TV movies. However, the deluge turns into a drip when it comes to popular Christmas plays and stage musicals. There’s the granddaddy of them all, “A Christmas Carol,” and its many derivatives. “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street” had their genesis in 1940s movies while “A Christmas Story: The Musical” sprang from the 1983 film and “Elf the Musical” was an adaptation of the 2003 movie. “Dr. Suess’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas the Musical” and “Charlie Brown Christmas” both followed in the footsteps of popular 1960s cartoons. Then there are the franchise Christmas shows, holiday sequels to “Nunsense,” “Forever Plaid” and “Greater Tuna.” And that’s about it.

So it isn’t surprising that Surflight, under the direction of Producing Artistic Director Steven Steiner, sometimes looks to find a little diversity, creating its own holiday musicals. “’Tis the Season” is one of those shows, with a book by Andrew Foote and musical arrangements by Steiner.

The pair had collaborated before with 2017’s “Home for the Holidays,” which was also produced at Surflight 11 years before, and in 2013’s “Holly Jolly Holidazzle.” “’Tis the Season,” though, is by far their best effort yet.

Sure, the book could serve as the script for a feel-good Hallmark TV movie. Plus it borrowed heavily from “Holiday Inn,” the 2016 Broadway show based on the 1942 Bing Crosby movie, which opened Surflight’s 2019 summer season. The plot of “Holiday Inn” revolved around a Connecticut farm that was saved by becoming an inn that featured entertainment based around major holidays. “’Tis the Season” is set in the Evergreen Valley Inn in Colorado, which is beloved because of its Christmas season traditions, which include a letters to Santa day for kids, an ugly sweater contest for adults and a Christmas Eve ball.

Like the Holiday Inn, the EVI is on the verge of being sold as the show opens. Its owner, Grace Jennings (Sandra Bargman), has lost her energy after the death of her husband several years before; her son, Sam (Dan Fenaughty), who lost his wife at about the same time, also wants out so he can move to Los Angeles. So the Jenningses are going to sell to hotel magnate Terrance Hawks (Rick O’Meara), who sends a rather jaded employee, Emma (Allison Foote), to seal the deal.

The story line is as predictable as they come. Emma falls in love with Sam, much to the delight of her adorable daughter, Sophie (Annie Shea Caravella, who shone as Matilda in the musical of the same name this summer), and the Jenningses decide not to sell. Meanwhile, the borrowing from “Holiday Inn” never stops. The rousing Act One finale is “Shakin’ the Blues Away,” which also was a tap dance show-stopper in “Holiday Inn,” complete with rope jumping and tapping in milk pails. Janine (Britte Steele), the EVI’s events coordinator, is a dead ringer for Louise, the spunky handywoman/farmhand/chief-cook-and-bottle-washer from the Holiday Inn.

The show’s cast, which also includes Michael Paciello as Sam’s son, Danny, and inn employees Angus (Christopher George Patterson) and Lavinnia (Dwan Hayes), turns in almost universally tight, no-nonsense performances (to be expected from any show directed by Paula Hammons Sloan) with solid singing, dancing and acting. It was also nice that Surflight had live music once again thanks to a three-piece band, and a shout out has to go to costume Designer Keith Lambert.

However, what makes “’Tis the Season” stand out is the musical numbers chosen by Foote, Steiner and Gail Anderson, who had come up with the original concept for the show. They eschewed standards such as “White Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Let It Snow!” for some lesser-known numbers that sound fresh, considering they haven’t been recorded by every second-rate pop or country singer and constantly played on radio.

One of the show’s highlights, for example, is a “Letters to Santa” medley sung by a large chorus of cute kids. It includes parts, or at least snippets, of songs such as “Christmas Don’t Be Late,” a.k.a. “The Chipmunk Song,” “Santa Bring Me a Dinosaur” and “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.” Or here’s a good example of picking a lesser-known song: If you wanted a tune with a foreign feel, the safe pick would be “Feliz Navidad”, but Surflight went with “Santa Lucia,” sung beautifully by the youth ensemble.

There were too many lesser known Christmas songs to mention here. but they were refreshing. And the choice to end the show with a rousing non-holiday song, “You Raise Me Up,” was stunning.

“’Tis the Season,” Steiner told me, was about “traditions.” But it was Surflight’s choice to go with less-traditional songs, something different, that makes the show click.

Tickets for “’Tis the Season” are $39 for adults and $29 for children 12 years of age and younger. They may be purchased online at surflight.org, by phone at 609-492-9477 or at the box office, located at 201 Engleside Ave., Beach Haven.

— Rick Mellerup

rickmellerup@thesandpaper.net

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