Sunday, December 28, 2014

Rest in Peace, Pappy

At 4am on Christmas morning, I was awakened by a ringing phone. I lay awake as my husband answered, not needing to hear the other end of the conversation to know that the call was to let us know that my father-in-law had passed away. He had been in poor health for some time, and had taken a turn for the worse less than a week prior. We had moved him into the same hospice where my mother-in-law had passed away nearly a year ago – the same exact room, in fact – only a few days before. The call was by no means unexpected, and yet it was still a shock. As my husband hung up the phone, he quietly murmured, “Dad’s gone,” and we simply held hands in the dark for a few moments, comforting each other without words.

My husband, who had spent the past week rushing back and forth between our home, Pappy’s assisted living facility, and the hospice, making arrangements for private care and transport, packing and unpacking necessary items, dealing with bills and insurance and red tape, having the awkward conversation with Pappy about funeral arrangements, not to mention simply waiting and wondering and worrying, was able to eventually fall back asleep from sheer physical and emotional exhaustion. I lay in bed quietly for a while, and when sleep didn’t come, I slipped out of the bedroom and downstairs to the living room. I turned on the lights on the Christmas tree, the swag over the mantelpiece, and the snow village. I thought about turning on some Christmas music, but instead, I brewed myself a cup of coffee and curled up in an easy chair, warming my hands on the mug, inhaling the fragrant steam, and enjoying the calm serenity of silence in the soft glow of the Christmas lights.

As I sat, I thought about Pappy’s life. He had certainly led an interesting one. Born to Canadian immigrants and raised in a blue-collar suburb of Boston, he obtained a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in music from Boston University. He played trombone in an Army and later a USO band. He met and married a beautiful young lady and raised three children with her. He taught music at the high school and college level, serving as Dean of Boston Conservatory for a decade. He served as president of the Massachusetts Music Educators Association. He played in the pit orchestras of the Shubert and Colonial Theatres, and entertained at Blinstraub’s nightclub, the Totem Pole Ballroom, and the Cape Cod Melody Tent. He directed the Boston Brass Ensemble. He taught at a youth band camp in New Brunswick for many summers, often packing up the family (and the family dog) and bringing them along. He was a Master Mason; a member and president of his college fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon; a Eucharistic lay reader at his church; and the proud grandfather to seven youngsters. He had visited Canada, France, Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, and throughout the United States. He had met fascinating people – some famous, some not. And over the course of the past 81 years, he had become quite a fascinating person himself.

When I first met my husband, we talked to each other quite a bit about our families. My dad had passed away a number of years earlier, so I had to rely on telling stories about him. As we both talked about our fathers, we often found ourselves saying, “Oh yeah, my dad did that too,” or “My dad used to say something very similar.” We joked that we had been raised in the same household, so similar were our dads. They were both fond of napping on the couch at family gatherings, my father-in-law being well known for commenting, “There are two kinds of naps: good and better.” They both joked about their receding hairlines. My father joked about the potbelly he developed over the years, teasingly sucking it in or sticking it out. My father-in-law remarked, “I used to have a magnificent chest; then the drawers fell out.” My husband and I were both required by our dads to learn to change a tire before we could get our driver’s licenses. They were both strict yet loving and supportive fathers.

It had been difficult to watch his failing health. When I married my husband, nearly seven years ago, his parents had both been hale and hearty, happy to babysit our son at their Boston apartment while we went out on the town for a few hours. But as the years passed, Pappy had begun to slow down. The diabetes and congestive heart failure he’d had for years began to take a toll on his health. He found it difficult to walk for long stretches. He tired easily. He struggled to keep track of the literally dozens of medications he had to take every day. 

Eventually, we realized he needed more assistance than either my mother-in-law or the family could provide, and he moved into an assisted living facility. But he was still sociable, making new friends, enjoying visits from his chldren and grandchildren, participating in activities like concerts and games, and occasionally going out to eat with the family. Slowly, though, even those abilities slipped away from him. Although he could walk a bit with assistance, he couldn’t lift his foot high enough to get over a simple curbstone. If he fell, he needed several strong people to get him back on his feet. He struggled to get the short distance from his chair to his bed, even with assistance. He began to forget names, to fail to recognize loved ones for a moment, and to have periods of confusion – and of panic. He bore it all with dignity, if also with anger and frustration. And perhaps even with a tinge of fear – not fear of death, but fear of losing the knowledge of his past, fear of losing the knowledge of his family, fear of losing control over his own mind.

And so his death came as a relief – not only to us, but to him. He had spoken to several dear friends and family members on the phone recently, and he had visited with his children and his grandchildren. He had said his goodbyes. He had made his peace. It was his time, and he was ready. And so he entered into the life beyond much the same way as he had lived in this one: with joy, with anticipation, with appreciation for family and friends, and with a sense that there was something more yet to come – something wonderful.

Thank you, Pappy, for letting me be a part of your life for the last seven years. Thank you for letting me be a part of your family for the last seven years. And thank you for simply being who you were.

I love you and I miss you. 

Herbert J. Philpott, 1933-2014

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Holiday Birthday Dilemma

My husband’s birthday is the day after Christmas. My stepdaughter’s birthday is Independence Day. My birthday is sandwiched between my son’s birthday and Thanksgiving. The only person in our immediate family without a birthday slap up against some other celebration is my daughter, with her ha-ha-there-are-no-holidays-in-August birthday. We all have a few wrinkles due to the proximity of “our” special day to some other special day. My husband gets presents wrapped in Christmas paper. I haven’t had a birthday cake of my own in years, just a candle stuck into a piece of pumpkin pie or a rocket-shaped cake shared with my son. My stepdaughter gets a cookout for her birthday dinner every year whether she wants it or not (although the fireworks display is a nice consolation). It kind of stinks to have a birthday close to a major holiday.

But it also stinks for those of us trying to celebrate a loved one’s birthday that’s near a holiday. I struggle to find a free evening to take my husband out for a nice birthday dinner among all the other family gatherings and church services and holiday parties. I wrestle with the idea of baking a birthday cake, the leftovers of which will just sit on the counter amidst the 5 different kinds of Christmas cookies and the 6 different kinds of candy that overflowed the stockings, tempting me to commit caloric sins beyond belief. But the hardest part of all is buying him presents.

First of all, in stereotypical husband fashion, whenever he wants something, he buys it for himself. To be fair, he’s no worse about it at Christmas/birthday time than he is the rest of the year. But he’s not the type who thinks of something he’d like in September or October and says, “Hey, I don’t need this right now, I’ll just put it on my gift list.” Nope, he goes straight to and CLICK! He doesn’t need it any more.

Second, he’s a techno-geek, so the majority of stuff on his gift list is a) expensive, or b) completely incomprehensible. B) is not a problem unless the item is sold out or back-ordered on Amazon so I have to go to a brick-and-mortar store and try to find an overworked, undertrained, and underpaid temporary holiday employee to help me find the same item. If his birthday were in May or October, I bet everything on his gift list would be in stock. But looking for it on December 18th, along with everyone else in the known universe who waited till the last minute to do their holiday shopping, and you’re just out of luck.

And third, you have to get a whole bunch of gifts all at the same time. Since I have two young children, I have to get him gifts from them as well as from me, so (kids + me) x (birthday + Christmas) = 4 presents. Plus my sister and grandmother want gift suggestions, and I can’t just tell them “Get him X” – I have to tell them, “You could get him X, Y, or Z.” So 3 suggestions x 2 family members = 6 more ideas. Now we’re up to 10 things!! And all within a reasonable price range! It’s a good thing I have a small family.

My husband, God bless his cotton socks, doesn’t make a fuss about having his birthday close to Christmas. Whenever I ask him if he wants a separate birthday party and family Christmas gathering, he shrugs it off. The birthday cake he asks for every year is a gingerbread man – carrying a big Christmas candy cane. 

I’ve never heard him complain on the rare occasion he does get a birthday gift wrapped in Christmas paper. And when he hears me plotzing about what to get him, he tells me not to worry about it. But I do worry about it, because birthdays are special. You only get one once every year. And I want his to be special. Because HE is special.

But if I can’t quite manage to make his birthday as special as I’d like it to be, I’d say that the next best thing it to treat him as if every day were his special day. After all, he is special to me, every day.

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Monday, December 15, 2014

The Pre-Christmas Post-Christmas Crash

Ever since I met my husband, one of our favorite family traditions has been performing in Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston’s annual “ChristmasTime” production.

 Our first performance together

This year, for the first time, both our kids performed in the show, as well. It’s a wonderful kick-off to the Christmas season, but it takes an awful lot of time right before the holiday. In fact, in some ways, I feel like the show IS the Christmas holiday, and there just happens to be a completely separate second Christmas that comes afterward.

Rehearsals begin in early November, with a busy production weekend including a dress rehearsal with all 200 performers (nearly 100 of them under the age of 8 or so) falling just after Thanksgiving, with a full tech week of long evening rehearsals the following week. Performances run the first two weekends of December, with 5 performances (!!!!) each weekend. My husband and I host a cast party for the adult cast members the first weekend, which means that sometime before Thanksgiving we have to get the entire house and yard decorated (and cleaned!), or else it won’t happen in time for the party. The bottom line is that we spend all our time from 6 weeks before Christmas to less than 2 weeks before Christmas completely wrapped up in this show. I don’t think about shopping for Christmas presents, I don’t plan out my holiday menu, I don’t schedule details of family gatherings, I only worry about costumes and lyrics and backstage babysitters and how to stop my kids from picking their noses on stage. (Note: costumes, lyrics, and babysitters were fine; the nose picking, well, let’s just say that I’m still looking for a solution on that one.)

Yesterday was the final performance of the show, followed by a quick packing up of boxes (and boxes…and BOXES…) of costumes, rushing back home for a brief but wonderful visit with family who had come to see the show, and falling into bed. The adrenaline was still coursing, the elation of hearing the thunderous applause and the many grateful comments from audience members was still fresh in our ears. But this morning…this morning, we’re all feeling the crash of finishing one Christmas and barreling towards the next.

On the morning after the show every year, I look at the calendar and feel a sudden rush of panic at how little time is left and how much I have still to do before Christmas comes. Shopping, baking, scheduling, cleaning, wrapping. How will it ever get done? And yet, somehow it always does get done. Maybe someone won’t get exactly the present they had hoped for, but they’ll get something special. Maybe someone will miss their favorite kind of Christmas cookie, but there will be Christmas cookies. Maybe some family visit will be put off until January because we just couldn’t figure out how to squeeze it in, but there will be a family visit (eventually).

Why do I keep doing this, year after year, if it induces such panic every time? Because that panic, that pre-Christmas post-Christmas crash, lasts for only a moment relative to all the wonderful, joyous, peaceful feelings that I get from doing the show. The hours of looking out over a rapt audience, seeing the excited faces of children watching us perform, watching my kids playing backstage with their new friends, relaxing with the other performers who have become not only friends but extended family over the years, the beauty of singing carols which have been sung by hundreds of other voices over hundreds of years, the pride of watching my children entertain an audience (and loving it) – all that washes away the momentary panic. All that, to me, is the spirit of Christmas: sharing joy, peace, and the happiness of the season with others.

Merry Christmas to all!

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Friday, December 5, 2014

DASHing Peter Pan

I sit on the Executive Board of the Eastern Massachusetts Association of Community Theaters (EMACT). One of our services for our member groups is the Distinguished Awards and Special Honors (DASH) program. Productions entered in the program are reviewed by two trained consultants who score the performance in a number of technical and artistic categories, and at the end of the season, the highest-scoring productions in each category receive nominations and awards, and the best overall production of both a musical and a play is recognized. Although I am merely one of the program coordinators and not one of the adjudicators, I thought it might be interesting to review last night’s televised performance of Peter Pan Live! as if I were scoring a community theater production in the DASH program. I won’t assign actual scores, but I’ll comment on each category. (For anyone interested in seeing the actual ballot we use in the DASH program, which has comprehensive descriptions of the criteria within each category, please go to and scroll all the way to the bottom, then click on “DASH Scoring Spreadsheet – Musicals”.)

Set Design
The sets for this production were elaborate and numerous. Locations represented included the Darling home, the skies over London, and various locations in Neverland including Captain Hook’s pirate ship and the Lost Boys’ lair. There was a nice contrast between the realistic depiction of the Darlings’ elegant (and enormous!) Victorian mansion with its subdued colors and subtle but rich furnishings and the cartoonish, brightly-colored, stylized fantasy world of Neverland. The sets were physically located such that transitions from scene to scene (e.g., Pan and the children exiting the bedroom and flying over London) were smooth and seamless. A high point of the production.

Set Dressing
The set dressing was a seamless part of the design. The subtle richness of the “real world” scenes allowed for a startling reveal of the bright, slightly disproportionate “fantasy” scenes. There were a few misses in small details, such as the disgustingly filthy bathtub which appears in a scene where the actors are describing how they just scrubbed the entire place from top to bottom, but on the whole, set dressing was appropriate and contributed well to the overall “feel” of the piece.

Lighting Design
I’m sure it’s not an easy feat to light a live production for television cameras, but for the most part lighting was well done. There were a few scenes in the latter half of the production which were obviously meant to be ominously dark, but I couldn’t see the actors’ faces well, and in one case Peter Pan flew in and out of some overly-bright patches, which ruined the dim effect. The projected shadow work during Pan’s first scene was marvelous. I did miss the traditional flickering light for Tinker Bell, although the CGI effect was nicely done and well-synchronized with the actors’ reactions. There was a small error when Tinker Bell was poisoned and the shell she was hiding in lit up to show she was inside, but the light stayed on after the CGI Tink reappeared outside the shell. A minor quibble on a generally well done area.

Sound Design
For the most part, the sound was well balanced. There was one flying sequence where the vocals were slightly overpowered by the orchestra, but that was the exception rather than the rule. Given television technology, it is not surprising that all the sound effects were well done and appeared to come from the appropriate locations. Microphones all seemed to be up at the appropriate times and at correct levels.

Costume Design
Much like the sets, the contrast between the real world and the fantasy world was nicely done, with the London scenes in subdued colors and traditional styles and the Neverland scenes in bright colors and fantastical styles. I didn’t love some of the choices, however, such as costuming pairs of Lost Boys as twins (there is one actual set of twins in the script, and I felt their fun interplay was lost in the sea of twins) and the overly clean, very specific costume styles. These boys have been running through the woods without supervision for years – they’d be dirty and dressed eclectically in torn rags, not wearing clean, color-coordinated, perfectly pressed school uniforms. I also found the Indians’ costumes to be a bit overly revealing. Although it was apparent that they were wearing shorts under their loincloths and body paint, the apparent show of skin felt inappropriate for what is essentially a children’s show. Tiger Lily’s costume also showed some skin, but felt less revealing somehow. The crocodile costume was beautifully done, and although the bright purple and cobalt blue colors felt a bit jarring to me, it fit well with the fantastical styles established for the Neverland characters. The choice to make Peter’s costume similar to the traditional style but with some more contemporary or fantastical changes (such as mesh over the shoulders) worked for me. I think that Peter’s traditional hat might have made the actress look a bit more boyish, but the costume otherwise did a nice job of minimizing her figure and exposing her extremely slender and boyish arms, which was an effective choice.

Make-Up and Hair Design
One of the difficulties of televising a stage production is finding a makeup style that works for both long, full-stage shots and typical television closeups. Pan’s makeup made a heroic attempt to make a strikingly beautiful and feminine actress look boyish, and in long shots it somewhat succeeded, but in closeups the heavy orange pancake, blanked-out lips, and gray blush in contrast with unnaturally white teeth just looked strange and Goth. The pirates’ look was consistent and well done: seemingly inspired by the Jack Sparrow pirate trend, heavy eyeliner and bad teeth were the style of the day. They looked appropriately unwashed and grungy, unlike the Lost Boys who were once again pristine – I don’t believe for a minute that a bunch of unsupervised boys would have washed their faces within the last week. Hair styling and wigs were excellent for the most part, from Mrs. Darling’s modified Gibson girl to Wendy’s girlish pulled-back hair to Smee’s long golden locks. I would have liked to have seen a slightly more masculine style on Pan, and something much less neat (I doubt he owns or uses a comb). One other hair misstep was older Wendy’s blond wig in the final scene: Not only was the light blond too pale for the actress, it was also noticeably lighter than young Wendy’s hair, and since hair darkens with age, a darker blond would have worked much better.

Props Coordination
Considering the scale of the production, not a huge number of props were used, which seemed to me a very wise choice. The pirate swords were nicely done, although again a bit too clean and new-looking. The teacups for the tea party were exactly what I would expect Wendy to imagine. Small details like the lantern and shell where Tinker Bell is hidden were nicely done. The props in general were not particularly noticeable, which in this kind of production is a good thing. In a live televised production of this scale, the audience is watching for bobbled or dropped props, and I saw almost no problems with prop handling.

Stage Management
Bravo to the poor soul tasked with organizing the “backstage” of this massive production. Keeping everyone out of camera range (almost all the time, anyway), getting actors from location to location, managing camera angles and set relocations and getting the whole thing done within the 3-hour limit was a ridiculously difficult task that was extremely well done. Extra points for having to find enough burly stagehands to carry all the mermaids across the set once they were in costume! All cues and cuts seemed very well done, with the minor exception of one or two cuts to commercial that seemed slightly abrupt, particularly the two very brief between-commercial shots of Captain Hook holding a long high note, although that may have been driven by either the director or possibly the breath control of the actor.

In general, I found the performances were adequate to good. Sadly, the notable exception was Captain Hook. Christopher Walken seemed lifeless and unenergetic, completely out of keeping with a character who should be sweeping grandly across the deck of the ship, flinging his hat around and bellowing. I was expecting much more from him, and perhaps 20 or even 10 years ago he could have given us a marvelous Hook. But when the most interesting part of watching his performance is trying to figure out which object on the stage his lines are written on, it’s not a successful performance.

Moving on to the “adequate” category was Allison Williams as Peter Pan. Her voice is lovely, and she was playing the emotional arc of the character nicely. But she never convinced me that she was a little boy who had never had a mother in his life. Her accent (although nicely consistent) was too posh, her mannerisms too polite, her voice and movements too feminine for a wild little boy. I wanted a messier belt during “I Gotta Crow” and a little more childish desperation and panic as she begged the audience to clap and save Tinker Bell. On the positive side, her flying work was extremely well done. I was never worried that she’d crash or tip, and her acrobatics were smooth and natural. She had obviously spent plenty of time training to be at home on the wires, and it showed. I wish there had been a bit more focus on stage combat training, but that is a minor detail affecting only one short scene.

My favorite performances were from the three Darling children, each of whom lived up to their name. When I first saw Wendy, my immediate reaction was that she was much too old for the part. However, she took on the mannerisms, voice, and bearing of a young girl on the cusp of adulthood so beautifully that I forgot her age for the remainder of the show. I wish the director had taken advantage of her age to have the same actress play older Wendy, although there may not have been enough time between scenes to age her up believably. I look forward to seeing this young lady on the stage and screen again in the very near future. Hopefully this excellent performance will open doors for her career. Michael and John were the appropriate ages for their characters, and their enthusiasm and wonder throughout the show was an absolute joy to watch. Every time John came on the screen I couldn’t tear my eyes away for the marvelous expressions on his face. Both boys were completely in the moment whenever they were on screen. Very impressive and charming performances from both youngsters.

Another extremely well-done performance was given by Christian Borle as Smee and Mr. Darling. Traditionally, the role of Mr. Darling is paired with Captain Hook, and provides a fun contrast between the loving bluster of Darling and the angry, unloved bluster of Hook, and I did miss having that parallel, although I appreciated that Borle chose to tone down Darling’s bluster a bit, possibly for that very reason. But it was his performance as Smee that was so impressive. He is not the usual physical type for Smee – short, fat, and bald – so the choice to give him a very different physical look was the correct one. His Smee had long golden locks falling over a pirate headband and bare, beefy arms, with no sign of the traditional striped shirt or sandals. His facial expressions, with bugged out eyes and manic grin, stopped just short of mugging, and worked perfectly within the cartoonish world of Neverland. His dancing was an absolute highlight of not only his own performance but of the production as a whole, and he single-handedly saved what could have been a tragic rendition of “Hook’s Tango.” His performance is proof that veteran Broadway performers are the best choice for live televised stage productions.

Further proof of that rule was the luminous Kelli O’Hara as Mrs. Darling. In just a few short scenes, O’Hara created the emotionally believable character of a loving, devoted mother whose heart is broken and then healed. Her barely controlled sadness as she sings “Distant Memory” with Wendy, her facial expressions on seeing her lost children reappear at the nursery window, and her affectionately amused smirk when she encourages Mr. Darling to agree to adopt the Lost Boys (“What’s twelve more?”) were more moving than the performances of other actors who had the entire show to create their arc. Such a beautiful performance.

The pirates and Lost Boys did a terrific job, as well. Although the Lost Boys were more like Lost Men (what happened to not growing older in Neverland? Apparently most of these “boys” were kidnapped at the age of 25), their dancing was an absolute pleasure, and they generally did a good job of moving and speaking like young teenagers, if not exactly small boys of 7 or 8. I wish their individual characters had been a bit more well-established, however. I never felt like any of them developed a unique personality. (I found it interesting that several of the dancers had been in the Broadway cast of Newsies, and one of my favorite parts of that production was how well every ensemble member developed their own unique character.) The pirates’ dancing was also a highlight of their performance, as was their just-short-of-over-the-top mugging. They were obviously having a wonderful time and their exuberance came across in every scene. I could absolutely believe that they were crazy pirates who would happily take on any wild adventure they came across without a second thought.
The Indians were also effective dancers, although much like the Lost Boys, I found them to be somewhat generic. It didn’t particularly bother me that all the Indians except Tiger Lily were male, but perhaps having mixed genders would have added some much-needed visual (and vocal) interest.

As a whole, with the exception of Hook, all the performances had the appropriate energy and were within a reasonable range of levels and styles. The actors listened and reacted, and they maintained their characters throughout. Some emotional arcs were more clearly played than others, but on the whole, I thought the cast did a nice, unified job and worked well together.

Another highlight of this production! The dances were energetic, athletic, and fun, with creative use of the space, dance styles that fit the characters and the music, and appropriate for the performers’ ability levels. “Hook’s Tango” was an excellent example of the latter – Borle’s Smee dancing frenetically and exuberantly against Hook’s bored stroll may not have been ideal, but it worked successfully with the limits of one actor and the strengths of the other. (I would have loved to have seen this number when Walken was in his dancing heyday. THAT would have been a TANGO!) Each of the three ensembles (pirates, Lost Boys, and Indians) had their own distinct dance styles, which helped to create and differentiate the groups of characters while also maintaining visual interest and variety for the audience.

Musical Direction
As expected in a professional, big budget production, the orchestra was fabulous. The orchestrations were lush and interesting, yet almost never overpowering the actors. They were so well-done that I wondered a few times if they were using a pre-recorded track (I’m not entirely sure there wasn’t a click track in a few places, but it was for the sake of the vocalists, not the instrumentalists). They kept right with the vocalists and tempos were proper and consistent throughout. A few minor errors from the trumpets at the end served only to remind me that these musicians had been playing perfectly -,and nearly constantly - for the past three hours.

For the most part, the soloists and ensemble vocals were also well done. I never felt that a singer was reaching for a note, although I would have loved a stronger belt from Pan in a few spots, and Tiger Lily seemed quite out of breath during “True Blood Brothers.”

Although perhaps not truly a part of “Musical Direction,” I did appreciate and enjoy the musical changes that were made from the original production. The choice of adding and adapting songs by the original composers kept a sense of stylistic consistency. It can be disconcerting to an audience familiar with the score of a production to have such significant changes made, but in this case the choices were effective and fit well into the overall production.

Much like stage management, direction of a production of this scale is not an easy job. On the whole, directorial choices were consistent, clear, effective, and true to the original script. One exception was the costume, hair, and makeup choices for the Lost Boys, which were inconsistent with their characters. But the main factor that came into play with the direction was the actual filming of the production, which I thought was quite well done. There were broad shots to show us the scale of the locations, closeups to catch the actors’ expressions at key moments, and no falling into the trap of zooming in on dancers so the impact of the choreography (not to mention a look at their impressive footwork!) is missed. One could object that having too many closeup shots loses the sense of being part of a live, on-stage production, but I didn’t feel like closeups ever took me out of the moment here. The scenes that called for showing scale or the broader visual scope of a scene were shown that way, and zooming in was used appropriately for more intimate moments.

On the whole, I thought this production was well-done, despite the miscasting of Walken (although I freely admit that he was one of the reasons that many non-theatre viewers tuned in, so it was a marketing success if not an artistic one). Fans of live theatre may have been somewhat disappointed, but to the target audience of television viewers who rarely attend live productions, it was well done enough that maybe a few of them might be inspired to see a live show. And it was certainly good enough – and watched enough – that we can all hope that another live production will be in the works again soon!

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Thursday, December 4, 2014

Shock and Awe

Ever since I could talk, I’ve loved to sing. Ever since elementary school, I’ve loved being on the stage. For me, there is nothing as exciting, as invigorating, as FUN as performing in front of an audience. So I look forward every year to performing, alongside my husband, in a local Christmas production.

Now, this isn’t just any old “local Christmas production.” Don’t be imagining a nativity with shepherds wearing old bathrobes and Joseph dropping the Baby Jesus on his head while bored teenagers forget the words to “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” This is not badly-painted cardboard sets and an out-of-tune piano in a church basement. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – I’ve been in many of those productions and they are wonderful in their own, unique, homespun way. But this particular production is high-end, big budget, professional, go big or go home type theatre. We’re talking full professional orchestra, Broadway sets, elaborate costumes, trained vocalists, and precision dancing. This is legit theatre with an RE at the end.

One of my favorite moments in this production is at the end of the opening sequence: The choir processes down the aisles, wearing choir robes and carrying large candles, then moves up onto risers on the stage, and just as we turn out toward the audience, the orchestra segues into the sweeping opening chords of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” 

The music alone gives me chillbumps, but as we look out into the audience, I get even more chillbumps as I look out over an ocean of excited faces full of anticipation. There are usually a handful of youngsters in the front row dressed in their holiday finery, the girls in sparkly party dresses and the boys in festive sweaters or the occasional shirt and tie. Each one is leaning forward, eyes wide, the footlights reflecting off their awestruck faces. For many of them, this is the very first theatrical experience of their entire lives. They have no idea what to expect, no idea what they’re in for. But I know, and I love watching their faces as the show unfolds before them.

But this year, I have two new young faces to watch as something new and exciting unfolds before them: my own children. This year, my 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter are joining the cast of the show, as elves.

(The two in Santa hats are mine)

Already I’ve seen their excitement as each layer is added to the production: The first time they sang in a room full of 85 (!!!) other kids; the first time they walked through the wings and onto the stage; the first time they wore their costumes and carried their props; the first time the full orchestra accompanied them; the first time Santa (“He’s not really Santa; he’s just pretending, just like we’re just pretending to be elves.”) appeared to sing with them. And when the show opens tomorrow night, I’ll get to see their faces the first time they step out onto the stage and see the same audience I do, the faces looking back at them with excitement and anticipation.

Our show ends with a lovely and moving live nativity, framed by the chorus on each side of the stage. As we enter, portraying humble villagers in Bethlehem coming to see the “newborn King”, the director always reminds us: “You’re seeing a miracle right in front of you. Your faces should show shock and awe.” It’s become tradition for the cast to whisper to each other as we wait to make that entrance, “Shock and awe. Shock and awe!!” And that’s what sums up this experience for me: Shock and awe. Shock and awe. It is truly an awesome experience.

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Monday, December 1, 2014

How to Decorate the Tree, Martha Stewart Style (2014 edition)

Last year, I posted a blog with a few tips about decorating the Christmas tree that I’d picked up over my years of holiday decorating. I’ve added a few more tips and updated it slightly, but I’m still including last year’s disclaimer: Feel free to take my advice or not; I’m sure your tree will be lovely no matter how you decorate it.

Be generous with lights
No. As the old trash bag commercial said: “Wimpy, wimpy, wimpy.”

Yes! Lots of lights, clustered together and deep in the branches.

Everyone has their own opinions about lights. White or colored? Large bulbs or small? Blinkers or steady? LED or traditional? Wrap them around each branch or just lay them on like a garland? But one thing we can all agree on is that more is better. A tree with too few lights looks sad and tired; a tree with too many lights – well, as long as nothing shorts out and burns the house down, you can’t have too many lights.

The trick to getting lots of lights on your tree is burying the lights deep in the branches rather than simply wrapping them around at the tips. It takes a lot more time and requires a lot more lights, but the result gives a depth of illumination that sets off the ornaments and gives the tree a beautiful glow that seems to come from deep within.

If you opt for a pre-lit artificial tree, as we recently did, be sure to get one with lots of lights buried deep inside the branches. It’s well worth the extra cost.

Graduate your ornaments

 No. The same size decorations all over the tree make it look top-heavy and clunky.

Yes! Smaller baubles at the top and larger baubles and more large bows at the bottom make the tree look more even and give it added height and grace.

No matter what type of Christmas ornaments you use, be it strictly glass balls or everything from kids’ creations to German blown-glass figurines, make sure they aren’t all the same size. Decorating a tree with similarly-sized ornaments all over makes it look disproportionate and top-heavy. If you already have a collection of various sizes, be sure to put the smallest ones at the top and the largest ones at the bottom. Like the magically growing Christmas tree in the Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker, this creates an optical illusion that makes your tree seem bigger than it really is.

This trick works best if you have similar types of ornaments in different sizes. For example, we use glass icicles all over our tree, and we have three sets: tiny, medium, and large. The tiniest ones dangle off the top branches, the largest nearly brush the floor at the bottom, and the medium ones fill out the middle. Ditto for our collection of various-sized snowflakes. The easiest type of ornament to do this with is the standard glass balls, which are available in many sizes. But if you have an eclectic collection of styles and shapes of ornaments, just put the smallest at the top and let them grow in size as you move toward the bottom.

Don’t forget the back
 No. This tree has enough decorations in the back, but no glittery ornaments or lights to sparkle.

Yes! Lots of lights and a few glittery gold garlands make the whole room look cozy and inviting through the window.

If your tree faces an outside window, it’s especially important to decorate the back of your tree as well as the front! Go heavy on glass and metallic ornaments that will sparkle in the lights at night – colored ornaments aren’t visible, but reflective ornaments that move with air currents will create a cozy twinkle that will look beautiful to neighbors and passers-by. Plus, when you look at the tree from the side, you’ll notice the silhouetted bare spots if you neglect the back.

Decorate the spaces, not the branches

 No. Look at the big star halfway up – there’s a big gap right above it that it’s supposed to be filling. Heavy ornaments always hang lower than you think.

Yes! In contrast, these heavy star seashells are carefully arranged so their weight puts them in just the right spot.

This is a trap that is very easy to fall into, especially with a real tree. You see an empty space so you hang an ornament on the branch right above that space. But unless that ornament is a feather, it’s going to weigh the branch down and hang lower than where you put it. So fill spaces by hanging an ornament a few inches above the gap, let it settle, then see if it’s still in the right place. Heavier ornaments, obviously, will dangle lower than light ones; be sure to compensate for this. One of the benefits to an artificial tree is that you can often bend the branches to tweak an ornament into exactly the right place. Hanging the heavier ornaments first then filling in with lighter ones can make this technique easier.

Get the top and the bottom
 No. There is at least four inches of bare, barren branch between the tree topper and the highest ornament.

Yes! The ornaments at the bottom of the tree hang just a hair lower than the branches, adding a nice finished “hem” to the tree.

It’s easy to neglect the top branches, especially if you’re short, and it’s easy to neglect the bottom branches, especially if you’re tall. After you’re done, be sure to stand well back and check the overall look. Fill the top by using a few small ornaments that can rest on top of the branches rather than hang down from them – it’s really hard to fill the space at the top if all the ornaments are dangling from a 2-inch string! And don’t be afraid to let a few ornaments dangle down below the lowest branches of the tree. You don’t want a lot of large ornaments hanging below the line of the branches, but the tree looks more finished when a few ornaments show their lower edge past the bottom branches.

Aim for balance, not symmetry
 No. It looks like someone measured with a ruler to hang each bauble exactly 6 inches apart, red, gold, blue, red, gold, blue. Bo. Ring.
Yes! There is a similar number of red ornaments on each side, but some are close together and some are further apart. They’re not evenly spaced, but they’re evenly weighted.

I love symmetry. I find it very comforting. But when you’re decorating a Christmas tree, symmetry looks boring and cold. So don’t put a silver star on the right side of the tree and another silver star directly opposite it on the left side of the tree. Instead, have three or four silver ornaments on one side and three or four silver ornaments on the other. They shouldn’t be in mirrored positions, they only need to add roughly the same “visual weight” on each side.

Much like checking the top and bottom of the tree, check for balance by standing back. Is there too much red on one side and not enough glass on the other? Take in the overall impression, but don’t analyze a single area. If there’s a large area that seems to need a glass icicle, don’t put the icicle smack in the center of that “hole;” put it a bit off-set. It will look much more natural. Things should be random, not even.

Let ‘em dangle
 No. A number of the icicles aren’t hanging straight down because they’re caught in a branch below, and several stars aren’t showing because they’re tangled in greenery.

Yes! Each angel and star is hanging free rather than leaning against a branch.

Most ornaments are designed to dangle from a hook or loop of wire or thread; the crucial word being “dangle.” An ornament that’s resting awkwardly against a branch or hanging crooked because it’s bumping into something doesn’t look as nice as one that’s hanging freely. Adjust the placement of dangling ornaments so they aren’t propped against anything else. This is especially important for long or large ornaments, or anything with vertical lines. And it will allow glass and shiny ornaments to move slightly, making the tree's lights seem to twinkle warmly.

Don’t overdo it
 No. Is there even a tree under all those decorations?

Yes! There are plenty of decorations on this tree, but even though some are slightly overlapping, they’re all clearly visible, as is plenty of greenery.

If you’re like my family, every year you add a few more ornaments to your collection, whether they’re ones your kids made at school, ones you picked up at the after-season sale last year, gifts from someone else – after a few years of 3 or 4 ornaments a year, you’ve got a lot more stuff to hang on your tree! And at a certain point, there are so many ornaments that you can’t enjoy the ones that are there, because you can’t even SEE them.

There’s no reason to use every single ornament you own every year. And there’s no reason to decorate your tree exactly the same way every year. If you have an eclectic collection, try doing a theme tree – use all glass ornaments; or all animals; or only red, white, and green; or only wooden decorations. If you have a lot of similar ornaments, set a few aside by type: only use 2/3 of the glass baubles, or leave off a few macramé snowflakes, or skip the pinecones.

Bonus tip: Ornaments aren’t limited to the tree

If you just can’t bear to not use certain ornaments, add a special collection somewhere. Hang some ornaments on the evergreen wreath inside the front door. Tuck a few around the base of a pillar candle or inside a dish of candy. Grab a few pine boughs off the ground when you buy your tree and tuck them in a bowl with a few ornaments nestled in. Hang a couple of special ornaments from your chandelier or wall sconces.

But however you decorate your Christmas tree, following these rules or not, it will be beautiful. Like babies and brides, Christmas trees are always beautiful by definition.

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