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Regional Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 1, 2005

Starting an American tradition: A Christmas story that sings

By Matt Cook

TROY—The New York State Theatre Institute is looking north to Alaska for this year’s holiday offering, King Island Christmas.

The play’s producers are hoping the musical, set in a tiny island village, will be something different amid the standard seasonal fare.

"This isn’t another Christmas Carol," said Ed Lange, NYSTI spokesperson.

King Island Christmas opens on Dec. 4 at the Schacht Fine Arts Center of Russell Sage College in Troy.

The play is based on a children’s book of the same name, written and illustrated by Alaskans Jean Rogers and Rie Muñoz. It tells the true story of a village of Inupiag Eskimos in the early fifties.

One stormy December, a freighter comes to King Island, bearing supplies for the winter and the village’s new priest, Father Carroll. High seas prevent the ship from docking.

Facing a Christmas without a priest and a winter without supplies, the villagers band together to drag an oomiak—a large skin-covered boat—over a mountain to the other side of the island, where the waters are calm.

"It’s inspirational. It’s uplifting. It says, ‘Yeah, we can,’" said Lange of the plot, apologizing for being sappy.

A "story that sings"

Alaska native and New York City playwright Deborah Brevoort first brought the story to the stage in the late nineties. It debuted in Alaska and has since been staged over 40 times throughout the county.

Brevoort wrote the libretto, the words, while Broadway and Disney veteran David Freedman wrote the music. There is very little spoken dialogue in the performance.

In a phone interview from her home in New Jersey, Brevoort told The Enterprise that, since she read the book by her friends, Rogers and Muñoz, she knew she wanted to turn it into a musical.

"There’s something about this story that sings," Brevoort said.

The day she left Alaska, Brevoort said, Rogers gave her a copy of the book to remind her of her desire to make it a musical. After struggling with the story for a while, Brevoort, who had not written any musicals at that point, settled on the idea of writing it as an oratorio.

The next step, finding a composer, took a few years, and almost caused Brevoort to give up on King Island Christmas. She went through two failed collaborations.

"I had a hard time getting anybody just to read it," Brevoort said. "People kept looking at the story and saying, ‘It’s not dramatic.’"

Finally, as a last-ditch effort, Brevoort followed the advice of a friend who said, "It sounds like you need a good Jewish composer." Other composers, with too much "Christmas baggage," Brevoort said, "were turning it into funeral dirges."

Without any prior introduction, Brevoort contacted Freedman, who turned out to live in her neighborhood. She brought the libretto to him and presented him with a lyric nobody else had been able to set to music. He took one look at it and started playing.

"I almost passed out," Brevoort said. "I said, ‘That’s it. That’s what I’ve been hearing in my head.’"

Freedman happened to have three months free, and he agreed to write the oratorio. Before it was even finished, Perseverance Theater, in Alaska, picked it up for its debut performance.

"People cry"

Something happens to members of the audience during a performance of King Island Christmas, Brevoort said; people start to cry.

"That’s always been a little perplexing to me," she said. "It’s incredibly uplifting, yet it makes people cry, in a good way."

The reason, Brevoort speculated, is because people recognize the play represents "something we used to be, but we’re not."

In the play, the villagers realize that the only way to get the heavy oomiak over the mountain is if everyone works together.

"I think there’s a powerful message in that about the power of community, about the power of sticking together," Brevoort said. "I think those are ideas that are in short supply today."

The hardest challenge for theater groups producing King Island Christmas, Brevoort said, is competing with the season’s traditional stage productions.

"People say they’re tired of The Nutcracker and they’re tired of A Christmas Carol, but yet they won’t come out to see things they don’t know," Brevoort said.

The difference between her musical and the classics, she said, is the classics came out of Europe. King Island Christmas is American.

"It’s an American story and I would really like to see us have an American Christmas tradition," Brevoort said.

Usually, she said, once word gets around about a production, the play does really well. She plans on attending NYSTI’s performance.

"They’ve got a great reputation," Brevoort said.

For their next musical, Brevoort and Freedman are returning to King Island. Goodbye My Island, based on another book by Rogers and Muñoz, starts workshops in Alaska next year.

Rogers and Muñoz love seeing their work on stage, Brevoort said.

"Jean has flown around and seen a number of the performances, and even been in one," she said. "They’re crazy about it."

"An utter genius"

King Island Christmas was brought to NYSTI by Patricia Birch, who would become the play’s director. The Tony-nominated Birch has been working with NYSTI since 1982, in between turns directing and choreographing for Broadway, films, TV, and opera. Birch was able to use her clout at NYSTI to convince the troupe to stage the lesser-known work.

"We respect Patricia Birch’s opinions for very good reasons," Lange said.

With Birch attached to the project, NYSTI was able to attract other top talent for the play’s creative team, including music director Michael Musial, Tony-winning designer Eugene Lee, and Emmy-winning costume designer Robert Anton.

"[Birch] helps to attract some of this talent," Lange said. "The people around here don’t really quite know how good a reputation we have outside of the area, even in Europe."

One of Birch’s main jobs on this play is to reign in the huge cast.

"She’s an utter genius," Lange said. "She somehow makes 50 people work like a Swiss watch, and that’s the way it’s got to be."

Young talent

One of those 50 cast members is Altamont’s own Alyson Lange (no relation to the spokesman.)

At 16, Miss Lange is already a NYSTI veteran. She has appeared in the institute’s performances since she was five. She only took a break for one year, to appear in La Boheme on Broadway when she was 13. Eight years earlier, she fell in love with theater after seeing Annie Warbucks on Broadway.

In King Island Christmas, Miss Lange plays one of the village dancers.

"It’s fun," she said. "I like it a lot. We’re on stage most of the time."

Miss Lange had not heard of the play before she was cast in it.

"It’s interesting," she said. "It’s not the normal Christmas story."

Of Freedman’s music, she said, "It’s so pretty."

The huge cast, Miss Lange said, isn’t a problem. In fact, she enjoys being a part of it.

"I like big casts because you get to know more people," she said.

Miss Lange is a junior at Guilderland High School. She has to balance her time between school and the stage. Her teachers generously accommodate her, Miss Lange said, by, for example, giving her assignments ahead of time.

Miss Lange hopes to make a career on the stage and major in theater in college. Just in case, she’ll minor in something else, like communications or journalism, but, she said, "I really want to do musical theater."

"It’s fun to be performing and be different characters," Miss Lange said.

"Something to remember"

King Island Christmas isn’t the first holiday play NYSTI has produced. The troupe has done several, including some of the classics, like Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, and, of course, A Christmas Carol. This year’s production could join those standards.

"If it comes out like we really believe it’s going to come out, it might end up in our rotation," Mr. Lange said. "This is going to be something special. I am so looking forward to this show."

The show clocks in at only an hour an fifteen minutes, without an intermission.

"It’s really short, but it’s going to be something to remember," Mr. Lange said. "The quality of the sound that’s going to come off this stage is going to be quite phenomenal."


King Island Christmas will be performed by the New York State Theatre Institute at the Schacht Fine Arts Center of Russell Sage College in Troy from Dec. 2 through Dec. 17. Saturday performances are at 8 p.m. and Sunday performances are at 2 p.m. Weekday performances are at 10 a.m. on Dec. 2, 6, 7, 8, 9, 13, 14, and 15. It will be performed twice on Dec. 16, at 10 a.m. and 8 p.m.

Tickets cost $20, with a $4 discount for seniors and students, and $10 for children 12 and under.

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