Arts Listings

The Theater: ‘The Man Who Saved Christmas’ Comes to Alterena

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Tuesday December 12, 2006

Among the Nutcrackers and Christmas Carols, another holiday show has sprouted up, Ron Lytle’s original musical comedy, The Man Who Saved Christmas, going into its last week at Altarena Playhouse on High Street in Alameda. 

The Man Who Saved Christmas has an intriguing hook. It’s the story of “Toy Baron” A. C. Gilbert, maker of Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs (and, maybe later, the chemistry sets we thought would blow up the house), and his crusade against a nationwide ban on holiday toy sales during the First World War. 

It’s theme enough to animate a cast of 16—and of all ages—through a brisk 2 1/2 hours of song and dance, romance and general light-hearted good spirits. 

As it’s really centered around a love story, The Man Who Saved Christmas is a little bit more like The Music Man in its nostalgia than the various toy and candy fantasies the holidays usher in.  

Boston Gazette reporter Johnny Eli (a boyish David Irving) shows up at the New Haven toy factory, amid a swirling mass of happy, aproned toy makers singing and dancing out their last-minute holiday rush, as he hopes to interview notoriously press-shy A. C. Gilbert for a story. Gilbert (sanguine Scott Phillips) charges in like a Teddy Roosevelt of toys, and taking Johnny for a consultant, gives him a wind-up toy ferris wheel to fix—which he does, with a stickpin extorted from unxious factory manager Mr. Dixon (smarmy Gregory Lynch).  

Though thrown out on his ear by Gilbert (to the delight of Gilbert’s personal secretary Alice, whom Johnny’s been sweet-talking, played with pert humor by Rebecca Pingree) once the real purpose of his visit becomes plain, Johnny soon finds himself back in the factory at the magnate’s invitation, as Gilbert’s sure he’s spotted another toyman in the rough, and a partner in his crusade. They celebrate their joining forces with zest in “You and Me,” and all at once young Mr. Eli—who had confessed to Alice he wasn’t much of a reporter, or anything—finds himself writing his story, conferring with Gilbert for real (he advises that children be consulted on their preference in toys), courting the once-standoffish Alice—and the target of Dixon’s venomous enmity.  

Meanwhile, at the Gilbert home, their young niece Ellen (Jennifer Beall, a deadpan imp in a doughboy’s hat) is waiting for a reply to her letters from her father, who’s in the army Over There—and, unbeknownst to Ellen, missing in action, though she’s dreamed he’ll be home for Christmas. 

Ron Lytle’s score is quite serviceable, and his lyrics often clever. Lytle also stage- directs, keeping the show brisk and energetic. Armando Fox leads a quintet aloft (Josh Cohen, Randy Hood, Mike Wilson and Mike Wirgler) that cooks and sometimes swings along, giving the action its impetus. Though there’s the whole spectrum of musical comedy-type numbers (including a great comic buck-and-wing of self-righteous resentment by that Iago-at-the-water-cooler Dixon on exiting the factory), the most tuneful is a lullabye sung to a sleepless Ellen by her Aunt Mary (a warm, poised Jenifer Tice), “See You in the A.M.”—though the best set-up and delivery of a number is with “Daddy Has to Leave You,” Ellen upstairs remembering what her father (Lyle Nort) said (in song) to her when he shipped out for the war—joined by a chorus of other doughboys parting from their little girls. 

In Washington, Gilbert and Johnny win over the weary wartime council of Cabinet members, who play with the toys like kids—while back at home in New Haven, the kids themselves (Zoey Brandt and Maggie and Julia Franks as Ellen’s pals—as well as the newsboys yelling “Extra! Extra!” periodically, out in the audience), bored at the complications brought on by Dixon’s duplicity, straighten out the adults, first with a production number (“What’s Wrong with the Grownups?”), then with mischievous action, masterminded by Alice. 

It’s a good showcase for the Altarena’s cranked-up community theater, from musicians to set design (Frederick Chacon’s set of enormous wrapped presents that unfold into the Gilberts’ parlor), from principals to Ensemble (Lorie Franks, Amanda Gelender, Sadie Shaw, Matt Beall, Kevin Hammond, Paul J. White—as the names indicate, a few families are involved). There are particularly bright moments, and more pedestrian connectives, stock and standard fare for musicals when the moments just happen, rather than develop. Besides a few howlers—phrases that fit in more with the aftermath of the Second World War rather than the First (particularly sticky amid Kathleen Edmunds’ striving for a period feel in costumes), there are missed opportunities to cash in on the bounteous background color and flavor the theme suggests: Gilbert’s educational toys, more period Americana in story and song—not to mention the Christmas spirit itself. 

But the show springs from an opportune partnership with time to develop: Altarena plans to reprise Lytle’s first hit for them, Oh My Godmother, next year. The first edition featured Armando Fox’s musical direction, with Scott Phillips in the title role, Jenifer Tice as the Evil Stepmother, and other present cast members also embedded. His musical of Rumpelstilskin will debut with the East Bay Children’s Theatre in February.  




The Man Who Saved Christmas 

Alterena Playhouse 

1409 High St., Alameda 

Through Sunday 

Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. 

Tickets $15-18