It's Natale --Christmas--in Calabria, so Strega Nona (Grandma Witch) refuses to use her magic, even when the baccala-- codfish stew--is ruined for the holiday feast. "Christmas has a magic of its own," she says.
Based on Tomie dePaola's children's book, "Merry Christmas, Strega Nona" is the Serendipity Theatre Co.'s heartfelt holiday offering at the Coronet Theatre.
Don't look for Santa Claus, reindeer or Christmas trees in this little Italian town of quirky, good-natured townspeople.
There's Bambo the cranky baker (Chris Jorie), his daughter Bambolona (Katy Henk), bumbling Big Anthony (Timothy J. Kahle), the mustachioed mayor (David Nathan Schwartz) and a priest (James Michael Hayes) to keep the peace.
And there's the village witch, Strega Nona (Katherine Ashton).
The whole production, adapted by Thomas W. Olson and directed by Scott Davidson with co-director Jody Johnston Davidson, is a tribute to DePaola's book--from the soft water-color hues and design of the painted set pieces to the costumes that re-create DePaola's dumpling-like figures.
The mixture of Equity and non-Equity actors often points up a lack of polish, but not a lack of charm. The principals are strong--Ashton is thoroughly satisfying--the production is engaging in its simplicity and the Christmas spirit shines through.
"Merry Christmas, Strega Nona," Coronet Theatre, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, Fridays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.; matinees, Saturday, 2 p.m. and Sunday 4 p.m. Ends Dec. 30. $6 (ages 13 and under), $10; (213) 652-9199. Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes.
'Holiday Faire' Only Fair in Encino
The program for "Holiday Faire" at the Encino Playhouse listed a "menu" of Christmas stories and poems. After the "Soup" and "Salad" came the "Main Coarse" (sic).
That little gaffe was a portent that attention to visual detail in this children's show would not be as tight as it should have been.
Director Stefan Haves ("Call of the Wild") co-wrote the show with Stephanie Angelini. The setting is a rooftop on Christmas Eve where children have gathered to put on a holiday show for Santa.
The quality of the stories varies--"The Christmas Donut" is an amusing highlight. The style is "let's pretend," with minimal props. That often works, but this show cries out for Christmas decor; instead, it's bare and bland.
And then, there are the "children," played by young adults, including Amy O'Neill (of "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids"). They're enthusiastic and likable, but accepting them as children requires extreme myopia, due to an odd costume choice--figure-revealing long johns. It doesn't help that one actor's pants droop fore and aft.
"Holiday Faire," Encino Playhouse, 4935 Balboa Blvd., Saturdays-Sundays, 1 p.m. Ends Dec. 23. $5; (818) 990-1613. Running time: just under 1 hour.