Jack Seabury, Michaal Lyn Schepps, Tom Gregory, Tim Ferris, Mary Sabo Scopinich, Salli-Jo Borden, Kieran Conlon and Sue Conklin in the Center Stage production of “The Big Christmas Show: A Musical Radio Play” at Southampton Arts Center. DANE DUPUIS
Mary Sabo Scopinich, Jack Seabury, Salli-Jo Borden and Michaal Lyn Schepps in the Center Stage production of “The Big Christmas Show: A Musical Radio Play” at Southampton Arts Center. DANE DUPUIS
Mary Sabo Scopinich, Michaael Lyn Schepps, Sue Conklin, Salli-Jo Borden in the Center Stage production of “The Big Christmas Show: A Musical Radio Play” at Southampton Arts Center. DANE DUPUIS
Mary Sabo Scopinich, Salli-Jo Borden, Michaal Lyn Schepps and Sue Conklin in the Center Stage production of “The Big Christmas Show: A Musical Radio Play” at Southampton Arts Center. DANE DUPUIS
Tom Gregory and Tim Ferris in the Center Stage production of “The Big Christmas Show: A Musical Radio Play” at Southampton Arts Center. DANE DUPUIS
Tom Gregory, Tim Ferris and Michaael Lyn Schepps at the mic in the Center Stage production of “The Big Christmas Show: A Musical Radio Play” at Southampton Arts Center. DANE DUPUIS
Tom Rosante at the mic in the Center Stage production of “The Big Christmas Show: A Musical Radio Play” at Southampton Arts Center. DANE DUPUIS
Vay David, seated, Michaal Lyn Schepps, Jack Seabury, Daniel Becker, Tom Rosante, Tom Gregory in the Center Stage production of “The Big Christmas Show: A Musical Radio Play” at Southampton Arts Center. DANE DUPUIS
If you’ve known Michael Disher for any length of time, you know that he is always on the lookout for new ways to embrace the holiday season on stage.
As the founder of Center Stage, the theater company which, for more than a decade, offered shows at Southampton Cultural Center and is now presenting plays at Southampton Arts Center, Disher, who splits his time between Amagansett and Connecticut, built a reputation for directing productions that retell some of the most famous stories of the season — often, in a radio show format. We’re talking classics like “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which are just a few of the Center Stage offerings that have graced the local stage in seasons past.
But this year, Disher, with help from his friend, playwright Joe Landry, is taking a totally new tack for the merry making.
“The Big Christmas Show, a Musical Radio Play” premieres this weekend at Southampton Arts Center, with shows running December 8 through 10. Conceived and written by Landry and Disher, this musical holiday radio show is a take on the star-studded variety programs that were all the rage in the mid-20th century — a time that remains the magical sweet spot for nostalgic Christmases in this country.
The premise for “The Big Christmas Show, A Musical Radio Play,” is that we’re in the studio of WBFR on Christmas Eve, 1950, and the radio staff is forced to rise to the occasion after unforeseen circumstances prevent the scheduled celebrities from making it to the station for their planned broadcast. In addition to a collection of actors doing imitations of some of the biggest names of the era, expect some rare, unknown Christmas songs. This new musical play, presented at SAC in its first workshop performance, also embraces several well-known Christmas stories.
In a recent phone interview, Disher explained that “The Big Christmas Show” was born several years ago when Landry, who lives in Connecticut, came to Southampton Cultural Center to see Center Stage’s production of “Meet Me in St. Louis,” which he had written.
“He and I talked at the time and said we should really collaborate on something together and come up with something different,” said Disher. “Joe is the unabashed king of holiday adaptations for radio plays. It’s his lane.”
For these kinds of plays, finding shows that are in the public domain is key, and Disher and Landry tossed around several ideas, including the 1964 film “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.”
“We went back and watched it,” said Disher, “and there’s a reason it’s on the top-50 list of worst films ever made. I said, ‘No, that’s not gonna happen.’
“Then we started kicking around movie stars of that era — one conversation led to another and Gloria Swanson in 1950,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be great if there is a show she could be a part of around the time of ‘Sunset Boulevard?’”
It turns out there was, and Landry stumbled upon it.
“A couple days later, Joe got back to me and said ‘Eureka! I found it,’” Disher recalled. “It was an actual production called ‘The Big Show,’ a weekly radio broadcast hosted by Tallulah Bankhead. They would bring in celebrity guest stars to do variety schticks or whatever. These shows are a hoot to listen to.”
While most of the radio show plays that Landry has written in the past are set in the late 1940s, Disher notes that this new script is set just a bit later.
“It’s after the war, though we were in the midst of a different war, it was kind of a different mindset,” said Disher. “It was a little more affluent time. I said, ‘Here’s a thought. What if the station workers are anticipating the holiday show coming up for the Christmas Eve broadcast? The celebrities don’t show up, because all the transit is impaired.’
“Suddenly, this whole thing came to developing a core of characters who work at the station. They can impersonate the celebrities and pull off the holiday show without a glitch,” he added. “That’s the gist of it.
“It’s been fascinating to develop characters. This is where it’s kind of fun for me,” said Disher. “The challenge for Joe, who’s used to adapting these stories into radio plays, is that these are all brand new characters and there are little twists on the way. Do I think it could have legs later on? I do. But for right now, I wanted to give Southampton something different that wouldn’t scare them away. They understand radio plays. I’ve done enough of those. These are tried and true stories and there are some truly wonderful surprises in there as well.”
As a director, Disher’s task for this production was to find East End actors who can both sing and imitate the various stars of the era — including the great Groucho Marx, Ethyl Merman, Julia Child, Al Jolson, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and “the list goes on,” said Disher who admitted that casting was something of a challenge.
“Everything is difficult to cast because people don’t have the time anymore,” he said. “We’re lucky to find people who can commit to a weekend show. It’s a different time we live in.
“For me, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it,” he added. “The majority of the cast, I’ve worked with before. That means a great deal to me. I knew I had singers, I only brought in two I hadn’t worked with before.”
Though the celebrity imitations made it a fun show, transforming it into a piece that is truly holiday-themed remained a challenge. The music was certainly a big part of the equation, but Disher was also looking for something a bit more.
“What do we have? Can we really drum up the lovely air of nostalgia, that unmistakably comfortable Norman Rockwell sense of Americana?” wondered Disher. “What better pieces are there to do it?”
It turns out that literature was the answer. In addition to the on air “celebrities” and the music, “The Big Christmas Show” offers snippets of some famous Christmas-themed writings, including O’Henry’s 1905 short story “The Gift of the Magi,” the famous 1897 New York Sun editorial “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus,” and Clement Clarke Moore’s circa 1823 poem “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
This is the second Center Stage production at Southampton Arts Center. The first, in October, was “War of the Worlds: The Panic Broadcast, A Live Radio Play,” also written by Landry, with input from Disher. The new formula for Center Stage shows is a much simpler one than he’s embraced in the past — that is, instead of running multiple weeks, plays run over the course of a single weekend and they require less preparation time in terms of rehearsals.
“With ‘War of the Worlds,’ I was kind of surprised,” said Disher. “It was a new location, a new formula and a new format. Were people going to come? The most interesting conversation I had was with [SAC’s director] Christina [Strassfield], at the final show. She said ‘It’s so nice that all of your people have come to support this.’ I said, ‘I don’t know who these people are.’ She said, ‘I don’t either.’
“These were new people coming to the Southampton Arts Center. I think this is really good.”
In terms of “The Big Christmas Show, a Musical Radio Play” Disher notes that this upcoming run of shows is the first presentation of the play. While for “War of the Worlds,” actors were able to read fully from the script, for this show, some memorization is required.
“The greatest difficulty for them is they have to memorize half of the script — the other half is on book,” he said. “Is it a perfect script right now? Of course it isn’t. This is the first workshop. But it has great music and lovely tales, and is taking people back to the formative years when we had hope, innocence and imagination — before Fox News.”
Taking a break from reality with the this production has been a joy for Disher, and he thinks “The Big Christmas Show” hits the emotional high points that make for satisfying holiday fare.
“It’s kitschy, interesting and definitely not Hallmark,” he said. “It wreaks with sentimentality, but I think people will leave warm. I think they will feel comforted by the piece and what’s wrong with that? We open the piece, narrated by this woman who has an attachment to the radio station, with a great tune I had never heard — ‘Santa Claus Got Stuck in My Chimney’ by Ella Fitzgerald.”
Disher explains that the show is 30 percent music, and that the musical portion of the production will be overseen by Amanda Borsack Jones, who provides the piano accompaniment as well.
“I wouldn’t have done this show without her. And I know certain voices have the ability and gymnastics to pull off certain things,” Disher said. “It will have an awful lot of Christmas tunes that people would know. ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’ that doesn’t come off the way it should, which is kind of humorous. We have Bing Crosby, the Andrew sisters and 1940s harmonies.”
When asked to share his own nostalgic holiday memories, Disher says, “My favorite thing, which I watched ad nauseum and is so random, is ‘Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol.’ It had terrific music. I was also a huge fan of Rudolph because that came into play when I was 9 or 10 years old. I sometimes sing ‘There’s always tomorrow.’ It’s the lights, the colors, the smells.
“Charlie Brown Christmas is also so dear and so touching, and of that same era,” he continued. “Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, it was a wonderful time. A time of great development of holiday programs that told us to never not believe.
“If you ask anyone about Christmas, they do have memories. Unlike Thanksgiving, where they can be horribly painful, most people do have fabulous memories of Christmas,” he said. “Maybe it’s a play, a cartoon, a carol or a television show, it just clicks in people. I don’t what it is, maybe imagination, belief or just kindness.
“We’ve all got that. Hopefully, this will give people an opportunity to remember — and sing along.”
To truly make this show a seasonal celebration, Center Stage and SAC have teamed up with Southampton Village restaurants to offer dining specials in conjunction with the show. Plaza Café is serving a three-course prix fixe either before or after the evening shows, while Southampton Publick House is taking 15 percent off for theater goers, and Fellingham’s is serving a $25 brunch on Sunday, December 10. Proof of ticket purchase is required for these deals and reservations must be made at the restaurant of choice.
“The Big Christmas Show: A Musical Radio Play” will be presented on Friday, December 9, at 7 p.m., Saturday, December 10, at 2 and 7 p.m., and Sunday, December 10, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 ($15 SAC members). Southampton Arts Center is at 25 Jobs Lane in Southampton. The cast includes: Daniel Becker, Salli-Jo Borden, Susan Cincotta, Sue Conklin, Kieran Conlon, Vay David, Tim Ferris, Richard Gardini, Joey Giovingo, Tom Gregory, Amanda Jones, Tom Rosante, Michaal Lyn Schepps, Mary Sabo Scoponich, and John Seabury. Visit southamptonartscenter.org for details.
One fine body…