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THEATER REVIEWS HOLIDAY SHOWS : 'Tis the Season : An unusual takeoff on 'The Nutcracker,' a pop-rap 'Rudolph' and a disappointing 'Here's Love' take center stage.

December 06, 1990|TODD EVERETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Christmas--as anyone who has been out of doors or who has perused this edition of Ventura County Life knows--is traditionally the time that local dance troupes produce their versions of "The Nutcracker."

This year, the Magnificent Moorpark Melodrama and Vaudeville Company is performing "Christmas Is . . . ," a theatrical version of "The Nutcracker." There's some ballet in this one, but there's quite a bit more.

Credited to June Walker Rogers, with an adaptation by the Moorpark group's Linda Bredemann, "Christmas Is . . ." includes the dream-sequence story of the handsome Nutcracker Prince's (Mark Curry) battle with the conniving Mouse King (Richard Zemaitis), and even a bit of Tchaikovsky.

But the show--set in contemporary times--also features a melange of silly gags, old and new songs and audience participation of the kind that is associated with the Moorpark Melodrama's non-seasonal productions.

Director Paige Newmark keeps a large, enthusiastic and attractive cast in motion for nearly three hours, including two intermissions.

Kelly Marie plays Clara, the little girl who lives in a mouse-infested house, wears high-heeled shoes with her nightgown and leans toward rather vivid dreams. Claude Rowe is her father, Wendy Morgan her mother, and Randall Harold is her brother, Mickey, a bratty young man who's reminiscent of a young Tom Poston and who--for reasons unclear--briefly affects an Alvin the Chipmunk get-up late in the show.

Debbie Peterson Munz (who has a solo spot as a ballerina) choreographed, imaginatively; Wendy Morgan is the choral director, and Linda Bredemann designed the clever sets and large range of colorful costumes.

The show itself totally eliminates references to the religious aspects of Christmas, treating the holiday simply as a time for good fellowship, family unity and gift-giving.

About as far across the county as you can get from Moorpark--about a 45-minute drive if you know the way--Ojai's brilliant Illusions Theater company is presenting a one-act, one-hour version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Essentially an expansion of the story in composer Johnny Marks' song of the same name, this "Rudolph" features new musical material ("The St. Nick Shuffle," a rap, and "Christmas Time," both by West Craig Smith, who plays Santa), as well as better-known pop ("Teddy Bears' Picnic") and rock ("Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now") songs. Phil Collins' "Another Day in Paradise" provides the backing to the show's most poignant scene, a retelling of the Little Match Girl (Deborah Wolk) story.

Illusions founder Elizabeth Ridenour adapted the story, directed the play and plays Mrs. Claus, heading (with Smith) a cast of 25 players, ranging from quite young to parents--and, perhaps, grandparents--in the company's usual style.

Ridenour and choreographers Cheryl Singleton and Karen Moncharsh draw amazing performances from the youngsters, especially, and Steve Emery supplies sympathetic and appropriate accompaniment on keyboards and guitar.

Typical of the Illusions company, sets and costumes are remarkable and cleverly designed.

The onstage and backstage skill exhibited in both of those shows, contrasts with "Here's Love," the current production of Ventura's Encore Dinner Theater.

The problems start with the book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson, whose prior credits included "The Music Man" and "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," both of which are vastly superior to this unmemorable show, based on the three Oscar-winning 1947 film "Miracle on 34th Street."

The fable brings one Kris Kringle to downtown Manhattan, imbuing the management of competing merchants Macy's and Gimbel's with genuine holiday spirit and bringing a young couple together. It's pretty thin, and Willson's 1964 score is so unmemorable that the composer revived his 1952 "It's Beginning to Look Like Christmas" to add a bit of hum-ability.

Beset with problems during rehearsal that included three replacement actors and a change in directors, the current production suffers most of all from horrible timing--pauses in dialogue or during scenery changes that bring whatever momentum the actors may be generating to a dead stop. On the plus side, this is something that's bound to improve along the way.

(Fairness dictates that we confess having left the show during intermission at Sunday's matinee, to arrive in Ojai on time for the Illusions production.)

Reservations are virtually mandatory for each of these shows; the Moorpark Melodrama and Illusions Theater productions sell out quickly, and the Encore Dinner Theater needs to plan seating in advance of each performance.

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