Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, December 2005
I am very leery of “holiday” shows. In fact I just plain refuse to attend productions of A Christmas Carol because I am liable to leap on the stage and strangle Tiny Tim the minute he hobbles on to the stage. The sight of a theatre critic beating a child actor to death with a crutch would do nothing to advance my profession’s already dubious reputation as human beings, so I stay home.
King Island Christmas a 1997 oratorio with libretto by Deborah Brevoort and music by David Friedman, based on the children’s book of the same name by Jean Rogers, is a new entry into the holiday canon. There are cultural and religious issues with this show which I will get into later, but overall this is a tuneful and enjoyable piece being given a handsome and lively production at NYSTI. I would much rather see this show again next year than any number of Nutcrackers or Christmas Carols. Despite being presented with a whole passel of cute and relentless cheerful kids on stage, I did not feel the urge to murder any of them, or their adult counterparts.
King Island Christmas had its genesis in 1951 when famed Alaskan artist Rie Muñoz and her husband Juan spent the winter on King Island, a tiny rock-cliff landmass approximately one mile long in the Bering Sea, located 85 miles northwest of Nome, Alaska, and 110 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Muñoz came to teach school in the little village of 150 souls that clung to the steep and rock shore and her husband documented their time there in starkly revealing photographs that you can see here.
The Eskimos who lived on King Island then (the island has been uninhabited since 1970) generally worked during the summer months in Nome, returning in the fall to their isolated island. The land is so rocky that there is no vegetation, and the cost so inhospitable that there is no dock. The islanders depended in a ship, the North Star, to bring them supplies once before they were iced in at the start of winter and once again after the spring thaw. The villagers rowed their oomiak (also spelled umiak), a large walrus skin boat, out to the North Star to unload the provisions and bring them ashore.
But in December of 1951 the weather made it impossible for the oomiak to reach the North Star to bring the supplies and the priest, Father Carroll ashore as planned, and the ship was expected in other ports on a tight schedule. The solution was to carry the oomiak over the mountainous center of the island (700 feet high) to the leeward side where the seas were calmer, and off-load there. The entire village, men, women, and children went on this expedition, which was successful and which made their Christmas celebration especially memorable that year.
In 1995 Rogers and Muñoz, close friends, collaborated on the children’s book King Island Christmas. I highly recommend buying the book or borrowing it from the library to see Muñoz’ lovely and colorful illustrations, one of which is reproduced in the NYSTI publicity for this show. Shortly thereafter Rogers and Muñoz teamed with Brevoort and Friedman to create this 80 minute oratorio version of the story. Like the tale itself, the true joy of the musical King Island Christmas is that it literally takes a village to perform. (Yes, it could be performed by a smallish cast, but I think it is much more fun with a big and diverse group involved.)
King Island Christmas is an oratorio, completely sung through. NYSTI has assembled a primary cast of 24 identifiable characters, all of whom have some solo moments or numbers, and a chorus of 25. There are lots of young people from NYSTI’s youth theatre programs involved as well as performers from all decades of adult life. The chorus is seated on bleachers above and behind Eugene Lee’s multi-tiered set of rough hewn lumber – a nice symbolic rendering of the steep and simple structure of the actual village as shown in Juan Muñoz’ photos.
There are a lot of people and a lot of set on the stage, and director Patricia Birch does an excellent job of keeping everyone moving rapidly through a series of evocative stage pictures as the musical numbers flow by.
My only complaint with the physical and technical set-up of this production is the use of body mikes (everyone has them) which mean that the voices emerge from the speakers rather than from actors. The combination of the large cast, sprawled and shifting constantly across the big set, with the disembodied voices often meant that I couldn’t figure out who was singing. A new voice would chime in and I was frantically scanning faces to see whose lips were moving. I suppose I should blame this on Sound Designer Matt Elie, but I am not sure what other amplification choices were available to him under the circumstances.
No one on the stage is an Eskimo – I hardly think of the New York Capital District as having a large Eskimo population – but everyone is very talented. Paul Carter, a handsome young man with a fine singing voice plays the leading role of Oolaranna who also serves as the Narrator. His lead vocal on the rousing gospel number Over the Mountain is a highlight of the show. Another notable voice belongs to Shannon Johnson, a tall and slender young woman with dramatically long and lovely hair. NYSTI regulars Rob Dalton and Rob Aroeste are in good voice as Father Carroll and Captain Crawford respectively. The young Tony Chedrawee, already a world traveler at age 10, is winning as Young Eir, the one of the seven young villagers with the largest amount of solo material.
I just loved that the oomiak was played by a person. This was one of the areas where I felt Rogers and Brevoort came closest to what I imagine to be the true King Island culture where the natural world had both power and personality. Something as vital to their life as the oomiak would have been a treasured member of the community. I very much enjoyed the young and gentle Clint Johnson in this role, where he displayed a nice singing voice and strong dance and tumbling skills. Birch and Johnson undoubtedly worked hard to decide how an oomiak should sing and move, and they came up with some creative and believable solutions.
Music Director, Conductor, and Keyboardist Michael Musial and his capable cohorts Mark Brockley (keyboards) and Mark Foster (drums/percussion) provided the music from a small apron area stage right, while the excellent and highly entertaining sign language interpreters Marian Eaton and Karen Garofallou worked their magic stage left. I am sure I would have enjoyed watching the musicians, but I was seated near Eaton and Garofallou, and it was all I could do to resist watching the excellent show they were presenting instead of what Birch and company had happening on stage. What a wonderful service NYSTI and these two talented ladies offer! If you or someone you know is deaf or hard of hearing, please check the NYSTI schedule and plan to attend one of the signed performances (they offer at least one for every show). Someday I will come back as a paying customer and sit at Eaton and Garofallou’s feet in adoration.
Now for my kvetch. There are enormous ethnic, cultural, and political issues involving Americans (aka United States citizens) and Native Americans underlying this cheerful show that I won’t go in to. This is a happy family Christmas show and those problems shouldn’t be addressed in that format. The bigger artistic issue for me is that this is a show about Roman Catholics (there was only one church on the Island) celebrating Christmas and there is NO MENTION of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem, mangers, stars, donkeys, angels, or wise men, not even in Father Carroll’s song during the Christmas Mass. Instead we get a lot of babble about light and love. The idea of light as deity and deity as light is so universal that it would have been easy for Brevoort to come up with some lyrics that made reference to that concept without being too specifically Christian. Or Friedman could have incorporated some musical motifs from well-known Christmas carols to set the mood. But frankly, there is nothing wrong and there should be nothing offensive about a scene set in a church on Christmas Eve in which Christian people practice their faith. When I go to “Fiddler on the Roof” I am not offended that Tevye gives Tzeitel a Jewish wedding. Just who are we protecting from what here?
Okay, kvetch over.
This handsome and entertaining production of King Island Christmas is a real feel-good family treat. Sweet but not too sweet, and truly affirming of the joys of community and pulling together in this dark and cold season. I encourage you to catch this final weekend of performances at NYSTI. They had copies of the book on sale in the lobby, and both the book and CD are available online through Amazon. (But don’t forget to check with your local independent book or music seller first!)
The New York State Theatre Institute production of King Island Christmas runs through December 17 at the Schacht Fine Arts Center on the campus of Russell Sage College, 37 Front Street in Troy, New York. The show runs eighty minutes without an intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-274-3200 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005