Early season’s greetings from Surf City Theatre
Surf City Theatre’s “A Very Special Holiday Special” opens Saturday
by Bondo Wyszpolski
Here’s how it started. At last year’s cast party for “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” the actors read aloud a few vignettes that were in the holiday spirit. They must have had a few chuckles because Lisa Leonard, Surf City Theatre’s executive producer, then said to Paula Kelley, “You should direct next year’s show.”
Or perhaps she said, “You should also direct next year’s show,” since Kelley had been at the helm of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
And that show? “A Very Special Holiday Special” by Mark Harvey Levine. It’s opening on Saturday for three weekends at the Second Story Theatre in Hermosa Beach.
The Christmas girl returns
“I had read the whole script and it was very funny,” Kelley says. “So I said, Okay, I’ll do it.”
The play is comprised of several playlets, so to speak, some easier to stage than others.
“When we started working on it there were a couple of vignettes that really didn’t work out,” Kelley says. “Luckily, we were in touch with the writer. So he sent us some other vignettes that he had written and we took out some and exchanged them with other stories.”
One of vignettes seemed a little too demanding, and so Levine was asked if he had something else that could substitute. “So he sent us more vignettes,” Kelley says, “and now we think we have the perfect storm. It was originally eight vignettes and now it’s nine.”
You told him that the one with the car chase wouldn’t be so easy to do on stage?
“Yeah, you can’t really pull that off at Second Story Theatre,” Kelley replies with a laugh.
Being that “A Very Special Holiday Special” is a seasonal work, we’re more likely to see it in December than in July. Its last local appearance may have been two years ago at Little Fish Theatre in San Pedro. However, this time around it’s a different minnow.
Each of the ten actors plays multiple roles, sometimes just in the same vignette. This is especially true of the last offering, “Les Miserabelves.”
“They are reindeer, then they change into elves, and then they change into toys,” Kelley says.
When you said they turn into toys I thought you were going to say that they turn into tortoises.
“That would be very interesting.”
Kelley says she’d just been writing her director’s notes, specifically about laughter and its beneficial effects. “Even if you’re sad or you’re angry, if you force yourself to laugh it changes your mood. Then I found an article in ‘Psychology Today’ that [claimed] laughter makes you smarter.” She added this to her notes: “You will leave here a smarter, happier person.”
Her interviewer comments that the cast, if not the audience, should be tested, before and after, to prove the accuracy of the magazine story.
“A Very Special Holiday Special” is Kelley’s third consecutive holiday show.
“Two Christmases ago I was the lead in ‘The Christmas Spirit.’ I died. Which I thought was a terrible ending to a holiday special.”
In that case, your intelligence would have gone down a little.
“Exactly, because that’s just not laughable.”
Will the streak extend from three to four? “It has become a running joke, ‘Am I now the Christmas girl here?’”
We’ll find out this time next year.
Jonni Swenson had one of the sugar plum roles in last year’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” She lives in Los Angeles and so gets to fight traffic for the next three weeks. As for appearing on stage…
“I did a lot of theater when I was younger, when I lived in Seattle,” Swenson says.
So basically, once you conquered Seattle you decided to come and conquer Los Angeles?
“I wouldn’t say I conquered Seattle, but yes… to try something new I came to L.A.”
She was drawn to the current show because of its jovial spirit. But as far as what’s most challenging about it, “I’d say the amount of lines because of playing all the different roles.”
And all the different shifts in character as well.
“Yes, definitely that, because it’s like a quick-change; it’s one right after another.”
As we’re sitting on a bench and talking, an older couple walks by and Swenson greets them.
“My folks are in town from Seattle,” she explains. “They’re not able to see the show and so they’re going to watch rehearsals tonight.”
Those are your parents? Your real parents or your stage parents?
“No, these are my real parents.”
They’re probably wondering what you’re doing here alone with this strange man.
Minutes later a small group passes by and they also smile and say hello.
Are these more members of your family?
“These are more of my family; my sister, my friend, my niece and her boyfriend…”
I suppose that while we’re here a lot more of your family will be walking by?
“I think that’s it for now.”
Swenson is bright and engaging and easy to talk to. It’s a pleasure to see her on stage again.
“It’s great being back here at Surf City Theatre,” she says. “It’s such a warm community and it’s nice to be involved with such a great show. There’s definitely going to be some hilarity, so get ready to laugh.”
Always in the spotlight
“It’s a nice way to kick off the season,” says Bob Baumsten, a Gardena resident who has also appeared in plays and musicals with the Torrance Theatre Company. “At the end of the show we’re doing a parody of the classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer cartoon intermixed with ‘Les Misérables.’ The first vignette is called ‘Oy Vey Maria,’ which suggests some madness already.”
Like his fellow actors, Baumsten will be putting on and removing many hats, literally and figuratively: “I play a toymaker, a talking Christmas tree, a Roman centurion, a French Burl Ives, a French snowman as a narrator, a general…” As we speak, he’s wearing a military cap and toying with a cigar. I’m guessing that’s not for the talking Christmas tree.
In each case you have to do a pretty fast costume change.
“Our costumer (Laurie Sullivan) has been saddled with 71 different costumes, so there’s a lot of madness throughout the show.”
If one person grabs the wrong costume there could be a snowball effect, I joke. Everyone will be wearing the wrong outfit at the wrong time.
“Oh my God! That would be the actor’s nightmare. Hopefully it won’t come to that, but if it did, you know, it’s live theater! You somehow got to make it work.”
Baumsten has another role as well…
“When I’m not doing this I’m a sales rep for Century Shower Doors. That’s the script I’ve been doing for 40 years. It allows me to improvise and play with it, much like this. If I can make you smile and laugh along the way it doesn’t matter to me whether I make the sale or not. Most people kind of pick up on my intake; there’s a little bit of rascality in me. I have fun with what I do, either onstage or offstage.”
In other productions, Baumsten says, “I’ve been fortunate enough to be cast in roles where I’ve actually had the ability to sing some nice little solo ballads… I grew up watching the likes of (Sid) Caesar, (Jackie) Gleason, (Red) Skelton, (Jack) Benny, and they had a tremendous influence on me as a kid. So I think my timing comes from all those mentors.
“Does that help you?” he inquires, as the evening’s rehearsals are about to begin. “It’s important to me that people find theater in the South Bay, whether it’s this company or the Torrance Theatre Company or Little Fish in San Pedro. There’s a lot of talent here, and we just do it for a cup of coffee and a donut.”
The challenge, and the reward for the actors, is when the audience and the performers are on the same page, “and it’s our job to make that happen,” Baumsten says. “If we can suspend reality and make people walk out of here feeling good about the time they’ve spent then it was worthwhile.”
A Very Special Holiday Special, by Mark Harvey Levine, opens at 8 p.m. on Saturday at the Second Story Theatre, 710 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach. Performances thereafter are Friday at 8, Saturday at 2 and 8, plus Sunday at 2 p.m., through Dec. 2. Tickets, $28. Call (424) 241-8040, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to surfcitytheatre.com. ER