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B Street Theatre unwraps a pair of must-see world premieres

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photographs by Barry Wisdom /

It may be trendier to deck the stage with a commedia dell’arte zombie musical that features a naked, nunchuck-wielding, Shakespeare-quoting cast, but the holiday season at the B Street Theatre is more about comfort food than nouvelle cuisine.

Just as Thanksgiving diners count on menus offering green-bean casserole, turkey and cranberry sauce, Sacramento-area theatergoers expect to see such familiar B Street company members as Dave Pierini, Kurt Johnson, Elisabeth Nunziato, John Lamb and Michael Stevenson performing homegrown plays that expertly mix quirky humor and heart-tugging sentiment.

Just how long producing artistic director Buck Busfield, the traditional author of the B Street’s world-premiere yuletide productions, can keep his company’s streak going is anybody’s guess, but it won’t be this year as he again delivers a holly-jolly good main-stage show filled with deliciously sly giggles and semi-sweet, spiritual morsels.

In the company’s 17th original yuletide play, Busfield assembles Pierini, Johnson, Nunziato, as well as fellow B Street company members David Silberman and Stephanie McVay, for a sometimes gritty, but always-entertaining story of one man’s moral awakening (think Ebenezer Scrooge) and how it’s perceived by his family and business associates.

Next door, on the Family Series stage, seasoned B Street vets Stevenson and Lamb mix it up with fellow company members Stephanie Altholz and Brittni Barger, along with intern Sam Arnold, to deliver a fresh-and-funny, sweet-and-silly take on “The Gift of the Magi.”

This all-ages adaptation of O. Henry’s Christmas chestnut, written by B Street director-playwright Jerry Montoya, is another world premiere, with Montoya envisioning the self-sacrificing couple as a forest-dwelling bear and his badger bride who are facing the holidays with little more than their love for one another.

Whether one is looking for a holiday treat to share with visiting family/friends, or an escape from the Visa-dragging legions of the shopping dead, the B Street Theatre is providing sanctuary for one and all.

 

“The Gift of the Magi”

Wikipedia, the Internet’s usually verbose “free encyclopedia,” can only muster four short lines in summarizing O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.”

In addition to its skeletal plot, said story of a financially challenged young couple that sacrifice their personal treasures to procure gifts for one another has already been adapted for a variety of media ad infinitum.

To produce something new and appealing is a challenge, but one that the B Street’s Jerry Montoya has successfully met.

In the world premiere of this Family Series holiday staging, which opened Nov. 17 and continues through Dec. 30, young couple Della (Brittni Barger) and James (Sam Arnold) have the world by the tail, which is appropriate since they happen to be forest-dwelling critters (she’s a sweet, good-natured badger, and he’s a sweet, good-natured bear).

Della’s also a successful teacher who specializes in tai-chi inspired “stealth” exercises, and James is a third-generation railroad conductor about to break his father’s record for on-time arrivals.

When James’ boss (the chameleon-like Michael Stevenson, who brilliantly plays some half-dozen furry-and-funny character roles), tells the bear that the line is downsizing and the town’s stop is to be eliminated, the couple’s plan to split his bonus in order to exchange special gifts is similarly derailed.

As luck would have it, Della also gets pink-slipped, and it looks like their dreams for the perfect Christmas have been clear-cut. But with the support of Della’s brother Walter (John “I dare you not to LOL” Lamb), a music store impresario, and his very-pregnant wife Winnie (Stephanie “Queen of the Sarcastic Quips” Altholz), they forge forward with renewed faith and love.

Fans of the story already know a happy ending is in the offing, but Montoya weaves in some unexpected elements that will delight those well-acquainted with the tale, as well as children who aren’t even old enough to know about the O. Henry candy bar, let alone O. Henry the author.

Director-playwright Montoya knows his audience. The pacing is fast, the scenes are brief (perfect for short attention spans) and the farcical performances are delightful. The unexpected New “Yawk” accents (and attitudes) sported by Altholz and Lamb are a hoot. The quick-yet-graceful Animal Planet-perfect movements of Barger (not to mention the heartfelt carol she delivers near the end of the second act) are as sweet as honey, which matches up well with Arnold’s good-natured bravado as the Gentle James of the forest. And last, but certainly not least, Stevenson’s colorful interpretations of such diverse denizens of the woodland as a porcupine and mole are delicious and delicate, providing a nice counterpoint to the louder, broader characters.

And though not officially listed as a character, set designer Sam Reno’s “Magi” set is a living, magical entity, with enough color, angles and scenery to entertain even the squirmiest of theater patrons who choose to skip the concessions stand during intermission.

Many holiday productions promise that they’re “fun for the whole family,” but B Street’s “The Gift of the Magi” is like a whispered pledge received on Santa’s knee – it’s something one can truly count on.

 

“A Pail of Grace”

It wouldn’t be November at the B Street Theatre without one of producing artistic director Buck Busfield’s world premieres featuring a roster of dysfunctional, damaged characters who nonetheless retain enough clarity to deliver a clever turn of phrase.

“A Pail of Grace” (Nov. 18-Dec. 30, 2012) proves to be no exception. It is an exceptional entry in the Busfield Christmas canon, with a smooth blend of blindsiding comedy and drama.

It’s all about real estate magnate John Finuken (David Silberman) and his unexpected change of life via divine enlightenment in the shadow of a metropolitan Starbucks.

Once frugal with his time and money, Finuken has become dedicated to emulate Ebenezer, and open his heart and wallet to those willing to accept the will of the almighty. This includes taking a dip in his conference room’s makeshift baptismal font – a secondhand bathtub.

His family is divided over what to do. His neglected-but-concerned wife Sally (the appropriately fretful Stephanie McVay) is genuinely fearful for his mental and physical well-being. His son Les (Dave Pierini) – a struggling lawyer-to-be (after several attempts he has yet to pass the bar) – is more concerned about obtaining start-up funds for his awning business (and his next macchiato).

Doting daughter Brenda (Elisabeth Nunziato), who once eschewed playing with Barbies in favor of Virgin Mary figurines, has become (by her own admission) a materialistic bitch – “a haute couture soccer mom with a Maserati.” Her verbal battles with Pierini are among the show’s most entertaining scenes.

His right-hand man, Zjelko Krelko (Kurt Johnson), an Eastern European refugee who was “adopted” by FInuken as a casualty of war and brought to the United States, is equally concerned for his “mister” – or at least his company.

All hands on deck deliver emotionally moving performances as their characters deal with Finuken’s spiritual awakening, but it’s Johnson who’s the standout in “A Pail of Grace.” His ability to play smarmy and childlike (“I want to go to DisneyWorld.”) shysters who seamlessly morph into sinister and threatening sociopaths is without equal.

In a single minute, Johnson can have you laughing uncontrollably over a bit of physical business or an accent-laden line reading, and then prompt a frantic visual search for an exit sign “just in case.”

The well-deserved kudos for Busfield (as playwright and director) and his cast can’t be given without also mentioning the work of scenic designer Samantha Reno, who has lately raised the quality of the B Street’s sets to the point where one feels as if they’re actually flies on a real fourth wall.

There are a few unanswered questions one might consider on the way home, but there’s no story, or play or movie that can ever possibly answer everything. Sometimes when a message is so good, you just have to accept what’s given and take the rest on faith.

For performance schedules, more information, or to buy tickets, please call (916) 443-5300, or go to www.bstreettheatre.org.

 

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