It is almost a sure thing that Washington's children will not see Baryshnikov in "The Nutcracker" this Christmas. But two lavish new Christmas productions at Washington theaters will offer some colorful alternatives -- for example, 18 humbuggers at Ford's Theatre and seven real-life dwarfs at the National.
The humbuggers are mentioned specifically in Ford's contract with Washington puppeteer Ingrid Crepeau, who has been recruited to add some eerie touches to a new production of "A Christmas Carol." The dwarfs, recruited for the Radio City Music Hall with the aid of the national Organization for Little People, will be cavorting with Snow White in a new spectacle that is a flesh-and-blood replica of Walt Disney's animated film.
"Reading Ingrid's contract is a very weird experience," sayd Ford's executive producer, Frankie Hewitt. Besides the humbuggers (giant puppets with scary green faces who will chase Scrooge across the stage muttering, "humbug, humbug"), the contract calls for an enormous set of chains to be draped on Marley's ghost, a half-dozen disembodied hands wit six-foot arms and apparatus to make clutching motions, and a massive, sinister Ghost of Christmas Future that will stand 10 or 12 feet tall, shrouded in a black velvet hood and cape, with a green face that will glow in the dark. Only about 18 inches of the ghost's hand and arm will show, when it reaches out from under the cape to point out Scrooge's probable future -- but they will be the hand and arm of a skeleton.
The National's production of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" will be the debut appearance of a new traveling company (developed by Radio City) that will be touring the United States with this show for the next year.Besides small adults playing the dwarfs, it will feature a live Snow White look-alike (Mary Jo Salerno of Chicago) who was chosen among more than 500 applicants and whose previous credits include singing the role of Yum Yum in "The Mikado." Prince Charming is Richard Bowne, who has acted with various regional theaters and the National Shakespeare Company. The production in which they star will be an almost exact replica of the Disney film, with two additional scenes and two new songs, "Welcome to the Kingdom" and "Will I Ever See Her Again?". The stage show will end with the marriage of Snow White and Prince Charming -- unlike the film, in which they simply gallop off together into the sunset.
Special masks have been designed for the stepmother (alias the wicked witch) and the seven dwarfs, modeled on stills from the Disney production. Small animals such as squirrels, chipmunks and birds (including the raven perched on the witch's shoulder) will be portrayed by hand puppets. Larger animals will be played by actors in animal costumes, including a deer that requires two actors, and a turtle inhabited by an actor who has to crawl on hands and knees -- except for one scene where he is turned over on his back and spins around on the specially reinforced shell. By no coincidence at all, the production was the idea of Robert F. Jani, president and producer of the Music Hall and former vice president and creative director of Walt Disney Productions.
Both productions are new departures. "Snow White" is probably the first major stage production ever modeled on a film and certainly the first ever based on an animated cartoon, as well as the first show the Music Hall has ever sent out on the road. Since its restoration and reopening, Ford's Theatre has been best-known for one-man shows and small musicals with relatively modest budgets. "A Christmas Carol," budgeted at about $180,000 (with a $150,000 grant from the Sun Oil Co.) is the most lavish production in its recent history. Part of the expense is offset by the likelihood that, if if proves popular, it will become an annual event, and also by the fact that it will be videotaped for broadcast by PBS.
Unlike "Snow White," which had plenty of music from the original production, "A Christmas Carol" has an eclectic score partly selected and partly composed by music director Michael Howe, an organist and choir director in Arlington who took a job as director of advertising at the Ford four years ago and has been waiting for a musical opportunity since then. The show will open outside the theater each evening, with the 18 cast members, dressed in their Vitorian costumes, singing carols to theater-goers on their way in. The decision to use the outside of the building, as well as the inside fits in with Frankie Hewitt's feeling that "My theater is the perfect one for this show -- an authentic period setting, like having a $3 million set."
One of the musical highlights of the show itself will be the "Humbug Hallelujah," in which Scrooge sings "Humbug" over and over while the chorus sings "Hallelujah" antiphonally. "We use Handel's notes for about the first 16 bars before going off on our own," Howe observes.
For his ghost motifs and other incidental music, Howe has come up with an unusual quartet of instruments that feature flexibility on a modest budget: harp, violin, piano and organ. "This allows me to produce a different kind of sound for each of the spirits in the play," he says. Then he adds, a little wistfully, "I hope I'll be able to do a full orchestration if it becomes an annual event."