ST. PETERSBURG — The holidays are here and a fun way to get into the spirit is with two local plays: the The Night Before at Freefall Theatre and Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol at American Stage. The productions couldn’t be more different, but both offer an escape in their seasonal themes.
The Night Before
Freefall’s The Night Before is a funny, feel-good romp told through holiday songs and cheer, the perfect show for our second pandemic holiday season.
Written and directed by Matthew McGee, the show sees four friends meet up at Michael’s (music director Michael Raabe) apartment for the holidays, on the eve of Christmas Eve. Outside, a snow storm is brewing in Florida.
Raabe did the arrangements, mashing up holiday songs with pop music (get ready for the delightful Jingle Bells medley) and also composed original songs. It’s a treat to watch Raabe perform.
Sara DelBeato plays Phyllis Schatz, Michael’s crazy cat lady neighbor who steals the show with her powerful voice and comedic chops. Hillary Scales-Lewis and James David Larson play versions of themselves. They’re all gifted singers and actors.
Like many Freefall productions, video is an element. Designed by artistic director Eric Davis, a screen on the stage sets the scene of the outside of Michael’s apartment building and news casts break in with updates about the snow storm.
There are many references to modern times — including pandemic conspiracy theories, Zoom and online dating — mixed with nostalgia (there’s a nod to Mr. Rogers) that make the show relatable. A batch of “magic” brownies meant for another party is the sort of conflict you’d expect from a sitcom, but when it happens in this show, it’s a fresh, laugh-out-loud moment.
Another fun element are puppets, which present as Michael’s grumpy cat, named for Stephen Sondheim, and his landlord, moved and voiced by DelBeato.
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The show makes a sweet tribute to Sondheim, who recently died. A photo of him sits on the piano, posters of his musicals adorn the apartment (the set was designed by Tom Hansen) and A Very Sondheim Christmas mega medley happens in the middle of the play.
The Night Before runs through Dec. 24. Tickets range $25-$45. Freefall Theatre. 6099 Central Ave. 727-498-5205. freefalltheatre.com.
Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol
American Stage’s production of Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol is set in the punk underground of 1980s London. Marley was Ebenezer Scrooge’s partner who haunted in him in the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol.
Written by Tom Mula, the play imagines Marley’s journey through the afterlife and sees Dickens’ story from his perspective. Marley finds himself facing eternity in hell unless he can convince Scrooge to change his selfish, cruel ways in 24 hours. He’s accompanied by an imp called Bogle. He invents the ghosts that visit Scrooge and tries to find redemption.
The cast is composed of four actors who deftly play multiple characters, so they’re billed as actors 1-4: Saren Nofs Synder predominantly plays Jacob Marley; Amanda Jane Snyder is Bogle; Patrick A. Jackson plays Ebenezer Scrooge and Amber McNew plays the recordkeeper. Each also play more of the story’s familiar characters.
The play was written to be performed on a stark set, with minimal costumes. Costume designer Jordan Jeffers was headed in a Dickensian direction, until producing artistic director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj took the helm and decided to make it more punk.
The dialogue of Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol is rooted in the Dickensian era, but the set and costumes make it visually modern.
Maharaj told Jeffers and scenic designer Phillip Franck that the set and costumes should be part of the storytelling, akin to a fifth character. Franck designed a black background, with phrases from the play scrawled on the walls and floors and symbols in bright graffiti.
Jeffers hand-painted the backs of jackets to echo the brushwork of the graffiti. As themes of time in the play shift, Jeffers manipulates the color palette, making the garments from the past brighter because they are vivid memories and ones from the unclear future muddier.
Jeffers took inspiration from people who made the punk influence their own.
“I always like to look at like high fashion couture, especially Haute Couture. There is such an elevated air to it,” he said. “And then you take that and you kind of dial it down or manipulate the structure or the texture or the color schemes ... into a more realistic sense. It seems to work really well for a theatrical production.”
The mother of punk, designer Vivienne Westwood, was Jeffers’ main influence. But the costumes don’t feel stuck in that era, particularly the bright pink shredded denim attire of Bogle, who Jeffers said was inspired by a 1990s riot girl.
The costumes successfully enhance the storytelling. Marley is bound in chains that cover a straightjacket-like sweater, to represent the chains Marley created for himself in life by valuing money over people. In another scene, people who were obsessed with material things in life become fused with their possessions in hell. A woman who loved jewelry is loaded with pearls, but they grow from her body through painful sores. Jeffers placed a skeleton ribcage adorned with pearls over a sweater to accomplish this visually.
The actors switch characters as quickly as they switch their costumes. Jeffers achieved these swift changes by adding layering elements, like a vest or a top hat. He also made the wigs that help characters change. This technique supports the show’s theme of transformation.
Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol runs through Jan. 2. Tickets range $47-$53. American Stage. 163 Third St. N. 727-823-7529. americanstage.org.