Theater Review: Some Non-Traditional Holiday Cheer in A Christmas Survival Guide.

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There's plenty of Christmas on Tucson theater stages. You may know some of the more obvious choices, but there might be one you're not familiar with. Let's get you up to speed.
Possibly flying under your radar is the St. Francis Theatre. It operates as part of the St. Francis in the Foothills United Methodist Church, but its purpose is not just to do church-y shows heavy on religious content. The congregation believes that being creative artistically is actually a connection with the divine, so they encourage and nurture music, visual arts and theater.
Bring on the eggnog, please! A Christmas Survival Guide cast (from left): Matthew Holter, Jodi Darling, Carson Wright, Geoffrey Gale (Music Director), Julee Gell, Sue Bishop.
  • Bring on the eggnog, please! A Christmas Survival Guide cast (from left): Matthew Holter, Jodi Darling, Carson Wright, Geoffrey Gale (Music Director), Julee Gell, Sue Bishop.

How 'bout that? They've been around for years and they don't shy away from doing challenging shows. That would include their current show, A Christmas Survival Guide, a musical revue written by James Hindman and Ray Roderick, with musical arrangements by John Glaudini.

Featuring singers Matthew Holter, Jodi Darling, Carson Wright, Julee Gell and Sue Bishop, the revue combines some familiar Christmas tunes, often with a twist, with some unusual ones. Jose "Chach" Snook directs, and with the help of an impressive five-piece band, these guys rock.
The piece uses a fairly silly convention to build the show around: There's a book, "A Christmas Survival Guide," that provides insights and gives helpful instructions about helping folks negotiate the very stressful holiday season, and maybe even have some fun along the way. Then the songs are offered as examples of what the book refers to. Sort of.

There are songs about dreading going to Christmas parties, and about being alone and blue, and even about the need for a wish list for adults. There's a take-off on the addicts' bible called The Twelve Steps of Christmas, and, yes, there's also a medley of songs we've learned from TV Christmas shows, such as Frosty the Snowman, as well as a couple of traditional Christmas carols.

There are some really impressive voices on display. Interestingly, several in the group are involved with teaching theater arts and music in our public schools, and those kids are in very capable hands. They'll likely glean a lifelong love of the performing arts from these capable teachers.

One of the best features of the show is the band. Not content to have just one pianist accompanying the songs, the group has invested in some fine musicians, and this gives the show a richness that a lone pianist could never provide. Dean Moore on drums, Catherine Gale on flute, Jacob Landi on guitar and Lisa Brown on bass comprise the ensemble, with music director Geoffrey Gale on piano.

The group is limited in terms of set design and lighting, so the performances are what matter most, and by and large they don't disappoint. I would suggest that they not treat the readings from the book as sort of a throwaway. Yes, it's a convention, but it's the convention that allows the show to have a context and thus possibly some impact.

Check it out. It's a different sort of Christmas show delivered quite capably.

A Christmas Survival Guide
. Presented by St. Francis Theatre 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday through Dec. 4 4625 E. River Rd. $18-$25 Running time: 2 hours with intermission. 775-2390; artmeetsheart.com

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