Updated: Dec 10, 2020
"Nobody Has a Voice Like My Shirley!"
Christmas obviously isn’t for everyone, but it’s pretty hard to avoid even if your plan for the 25th involves a little Facetime with the In-laws, some Chinese food delivery and “Christmas With the Kranks” one more time on Roku. Anyway, where else ya gonna go? The stores that are actually open broke out the decorations right after Halloween, so those have already been up for a month. And as for theatre, it’s now wall to wall virtual productions of “A Christmas Carol” from days gone by as we finally polish off the remaining Thanksgiving leftovers.
It’s enough to put even an eggnog-loving drama critic like me in a “Bah, humbug!” mood.
Fortunately, one notable alternative to the standard holiday fare has arrived from the good folks at Inland Valley Repertory Theatre to spice up the season: Donald Margulies’ “Coney Island Christmas.” This captivating one act (coming in at about an hour, ten) is based on an elaboration of the short story by Grace Paley, "The Loudest Voice,” which mashes up chutzpah and sentiment, and conjures up so many Yiddish-inflected turns of phrase I thought I was watching an episode of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” for a moment. This smaltzy charmer touches on issues of culture, Americanism, heritage and assimilation and is astutely directed by IVRT co-owner, Frank Minano.
True, “Coney Island…” won’t topple Dickens’ cash reindeer, but my 7pm computer viewing did bring me the joy of laughter along with the gift of wonder (Scrooge even makes a cameo appearance in the show). So even though everyone is locked down, “home alone” with cabin fever and you’ve heard the TV blasting “keep the change ya filthy animal” a little too often, the Margulies play will no doubt give you hope.
The script is balanced harmoniously with its crack ensemble, composed of a cast of not only heavily experienced alumni players, but young, rising stars whose names may not be on everyone’s lips right now, but whose talent is undeniable, and whose level of Christmas spirit would astound even the geniuses over at Caltech.
Commissioned by the late Gilbert Cates (director of the Geffen Playhouse, where the show originated), IVRT’s “Coney Island Christmas” seems to be vying for the Jewish “Christmas Carol” slot. And the Pulitzer-winning playwright Margulies, whose work (“Sight Unseen,” “The Model Apartment”) often grapples with Jewish identity, is just the man for the job. Interestingly enough, this drama is well on its way in becoming a holiday staple itself, or at least an addition to the seasonal repertoire.
The frame of the piece has Shirley Abramowitz (Cindi East) recollecting to her great-granddaughter Clara (Carolina Flores) a tale from her hardscrabble, Depression-era Brooklyn childhood in a heavy New York accent. Ms. East’s Grandma Shirley is the sort of hard-core East Coast transplant who still knits scarves during an 80-degree California winter. But it’s Hanukkah, and she’s not having much luck getting into the holiday spirit. She has Clara close her eyes, and they travel back in time to a bustling, noisy immigrant world near Coney Island’s Boardwalk—Ferris wheels, side-shows and roller coasters. A time of rations, cheese lines, and “Buddy, can you spare a dime.” Apples are selling for a nickel apiece. When she was growing up, Shirley’s part of town was fragrant with potato latkes, gefilte fish and sour pickles, and she regularly frequented the movie houses showing Shirley Temple movies. “With a name like Temple, she’s gotta be Jewish!”
Suddenly, Young Shirley (an endearing Moira Mitchell) is once again a bright 12ish-year-old with a notably loud-mouthed voice that she is unafraid to use. A voice that gets her in trouble at home (Mr. Kornblum: “You’re giving the neighborhood a headache!”) but opens doors at school—the stage door, most exciting of all. After making a successful debut gobbling as a turkey in the school’s Thanksgiving pageant, she is cast as Jesus in the Christmas pageant. Oy vey!
Shirley’s father (Steve Siegel), a shopkeeper happy to be in a country free of pogroms, takes the news in stride, but Shirley’s mother (Lauren Mayfield) is up in arms at the idea of her Jewish daughter starring in a Christian extravaganza. “We let our Shirley play Jesus, then what?” she asks. “She becomes a nun?”
While her mother especially chafes at the affront to their heritage, she also implicitly recoils at the prospect of her increasingly assertive child drawing the attention of the goyim.
Caught in this parental crossfire, Young Shirley is desperately afraid she won’t be able to fulfill the promise she made to her teachers, Mr. Hilton (Spencer Weitzel) and Miss Glacé (Lauren Bell), both of whom are counting on her big voice and beatific smile to save the day.
Wiping away these slightest of problems, however, is the incredible enchantment that Ms. Mitchell brings to adorable adolescent life, and the young actors will have you happily reliving your days in school assembly all over again.
There’s the look on the face of Shirley’s best friend, Evie Slotnick (a perfect Meghan Barton) as she sings her chagrined heart out in the school plays. Evie’s expression—with a hint of boredom, a portion of “please don’t let me mess up,” and a large part of trouper zeal—would make an ideal image for the holiday cards I am still sadly trying to get out this year.
To be sure, the play’s script still has a few rough spots. The awkwardly cute Thanksgiving pageant sequence, for instance, goes on too long, and in my opinion Margulies should have invested in the narrative more, but there’s no denying the endearing “God bless us, every one” spirit of the show. Even Mr. Hilton found some holiday cheer! And the Christmas spectacle is a giddy pastiche of every yuletide tradition from Santa to Schnapps. Only a Grinch would begrudge Margulies his sappy happy ending now.
God Bless Us Every One!
The cast features Cindi East (“The O’Conner Girls at Redlands Footlighters”) as Shirley; Moira Mitchell (“Annie”) as Young Shirley; Carolina J. Flores (“Anne of Green Gables;” “Annie;” “Ragtime”) portrays Clara; Spencer Weitzel (“Halloweeners” Web Series) is Mr. Hilton; Steve Siegel (“Born Yesterday;” “Romeo and Juliet;” “Cabaret”) is Mr. Abramowitz; Lauren Bell (“A Poison Squad of Whispering Women;” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream;” “Big Fish”) depicts Miss Glace; Philip Elhai (IVRT Treasurer) is Mr. Kornblum.
Lauren Mayfield (“Auntie Mame;” “Damn Yankees;” “Gypsy”) is Mrs. Abramowitz; Meghan Barton (“Annie;” “Miracle on 34th Street;” “The Little Mermaid”) plays Evie; Ian Ho (“Auntie Mame;” “Big Fish;” “Damn Yankees”) is Jackie; Michael Gallo (“Moana;” “A Christmas Carol;” “Sound of Music”) is Ira; Andrew Bar (“Beauty and The Beast;” “Auntie Mame;” “Fun Home”) plays Henry; and Ashley Gallo (“Little Women;” “Peter Pan;” “Big Fish”) is Anna. The marvelous Kid's Choir consists of Monica Granillo, Moira Cleaves, Ainsley Tudor, Jiseo Park, Siana Kaushal, Jayden Chaves, Jacob Chaves, Carly Moreno, and Marjorie Barndt.
The Director and Producing Artistic Director is Frank Minano, Assistant Director and Artistic Director of Casting is Hope Kaufman and Artistic Director of Production is Bobby Collins. The Music Director is Donna Marie Minano. Box Office and Photography is by DawnEllen Ferry and Promo Videography, Editing and Design is by Spencer Weitzel. The IVRT Logo was Created by Ann Thomas; Public Relations Manager is Cristie Hanson, and IVRT Interns are Art Alvarez, Stacy Hanson and Olivia Silva.
“A jewel…simply hilarious!” —Variety. “The biggest hit of the jam-packed holiday season!” —Backstage.
December 8th & 9th Only! For streaming, please go to: https://ivrt.booktix.com/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report