Reviews: Holiday shows impress with warmth and fun

  • Finnian Meagher (Ralphie), Tom Newbrough (The Old Man) and Jennifer Skarzinski (Mother) star in Standing O’s production of “A Christmas Story.”
Finnian Meagher (Ralphie), Tom Newbrough (The Old Man) and… (Bud Johnson, Special to…)
December 30, 2010|By Mary Johnson, Special to The Baltimore Sun

Reminiscing about favorite holiday shows in and around Annapolis seems a pleasant diversion as the new year begins. Although my celebration with my husband began with the Annapolis Chorale's "Celebration of Christmas" concert and then "The Nutcracker," I'll concentrate on three other events: Standing O's "A Christmas Story," the Annapolis Chorale's "Messiah" at St. Anne's Church and "Stef and Sue's Christmas Show" at the Powerhouse.

Standing O's humorous presentation of "A Christmas Story" — a favorite spanning generations that I had somehow entirely missed until now — is based on the Indiana boyhood reminiscences of radio personality Jean Shepherd. It began in 1964 as a series of stories published in Playboy magazine, then was turned into a movie in 1983 that has become a holiday favorite.

Conscious of the dictum that "A Christmas Story" must be approached cautiously and responsibly by stage performers, Standing O director Christina Enoch Kemmerer brought the beloved tale to life with the talents of an exceptional cast of adults and children. Everyone onstage and behind the scenes created an authentic and warmly human story of 9-year-old Ralphie and his family sharing Christmas, set between the Depression and World War II.

As the adult Ralph looking back on his boyhood Christmas, Mike Harris served as narrator and the player linking audience and story together.

Finnian Meagher, a seventh-grader at Friends School in Baltimore, was young Ralphie, who wanted "an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle" for Christmas. Meagher's Ralphie confidently dealt with the concerns of his teacher, Miss Shields (Rebecca Kenton), and Santa that he'd "shoot his eye out" if he received the Red Ryder.

Although Mother (Jennifer Skarzinski) had the same concerns, she might have been persuaded to honor Ralphie's request. Or perhaps his Old Man (Tom Newbrough) would come through, when he took time from fixing the furnace or admiring his prominently displayed "major prize" lamp. A happy ending was assured with plenty of nostalgic glow along the way.

The second production is our cherished Christmas tradition: the Annapolis Chorale's "Messiah" under the direction of J. Ernest Green, who improves the event each year. This time the chorus seemed to approach the sound of "angels heard on high," especially when joined by the best-ever soloists — wondrous soprano Brandie Sutton, fine mezzo Madeleine Gray, strong tenor Andrew Owens and baritone favorite Shouvik Mondle. The gorgeous sound they created brought a deeply religious experience for many in the St. Anne's audience.

Another local holiday custom we discovered only this season that now lingers among our fond memories was the third show, the "Stef and Sue Christmas Show." Having completed its 14th year, with more recent performances at Loews Powerhouse on the Sunday before Christmas, this concert by pianist Stef Scaggiari and vocalist Sue Matthews attracted devoted fans who regularly attend as part of their holiday tradition.

Scaggiari's understated piano style offered sensitive, simpatico support to Matthews' smooth interpretation of each tune, both artists together moving from breezily bouncy on upbeat numbers like "Santa Baby" to warmly caressing in ballads like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "My Favorite Things." Both artists rose to heartfelt, resonant expression in works like the Appalachian carol "I Wonder as I Wander" or the beloved carol "Silent Night."

Backing up vocalist and pianist were gifted guitarist Steve Abshire and fine bassist Dave Wundro. This ensemble of masterful musicians impressed together and in solo forays, with Scaggiari offering a lively version of Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" and Abshire bringing an elegant simplicity that seemed perfect for "O Little Town of Bethlehem."

As we start another year, it's pleasant to reflect on how blessed we are to live in an area so rich in culture, where we can enjoy classical and jazz concerts along with excellent dance and a variety of first-rate theater through the coming year.

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