"Christmas at the Local" at Theater Latté Da

Review: “Christmas at the Local” at Theater Latté Da

I don’t recommend showing up late to Christmas at the Local, the brand new holiday show developed by and making its world premiere at Theater Latté Da, as it runs a tight 75 minutes with no intermission. (It’s a contrast to most Yuletide programming, where folks get to settle in for a long winter’s narrative, with a break for a nip: Guthrie’s Christmas Carol, 1 hour and 45 minutes; Ordway’s Beauty and the Beast, 2 hours and 20 minutes; Orpheum’s Les Misérables, 2 hours and 55 minutes.) But if you do show up a few minutes after the stated curtain time, you may find you’ve arrived at the perfect moment for this quasi-immersive production.

The Local refers to the pub where this story is set, and which has been created here by scenic designer Benjamin Olsen to such exacting standards that you’ll be instantly transported to all the traditional Irish bars you’ve visited in the past, with glowing windows beckoning you in for a warming pour and framed memories tacked up from floor to ceiling. As the audience comes in from the cold and takes their seats at The Ritz, the small but many-hatted cast of eight enters the Local one or two at a time. They remove their coats and scarves, greet each other with smiles and hugs, and begin to tinker around with their instruments, from a piano in the corner to a flute, accordion, even a baritone horn (that’s the one that looks like a small tuba). 

Has the show begun? Are we all part of the show? Yes, and sort of. While Christmas at the Local is described as a holiday musical by Theater Latté Da, it’s more of a concert with storytelling. Who are these people at the Local this evening? You never learn their connection, their past, their motivations, as there is no narrative driving the production — they simply launch into holiday songs of modern times (“Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” “Fairytale of New York”) and then spin the yarn of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” (a classic by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, which is interspersed with Welsh carols) and end with “Amazing Peace” (a Maya Angelou poem set to music by local singer-songwriter Chastity Brown). 

As the characters don’t introduce themselves, and because lighting designer Marcus Dilliard keeps the audience lit for much of the show, you feel a part of the reverie rather than a spectator to it. Don’t worry, all of you who quake in fear of audience participation, this isn’t a sing-a-long (well, at least until the curtain call, if you’re feeling inspired), it’s more that co-directors Larissa Kokernot and Peter Rothstein aren’t stopping the footprint of the Local at the lip of the stage. They want you to feel as if you’re sitting in a booth, on a barstool or around a table at this pub along with the cast (grab a drink in the lobby beforehand to help this along). Maybe that’s why the actors are not given character names, and the pub isn’t called Temple Bar or McSorley’s or Kieran’s. You don’t need to learn names, you already belong here. 

I was aware of the basic premise of the show before attending, but I still wasn’t sure what to expect, as this is a brand new production. So when the first few songs came whirling out back to back — including a rousing rendition of “What Christmas Means to Me” led by Phinehas Bynum — I thought to myself: is this it, a kind of revue? But the show settled into a groove when the production took its first breath, a soothing rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “River” started by Elizabeth Reese and joined by Quinn Shadko. Then when Joy Dolo, who plays the one semi-described character, “the Proprietor,” jumps into Dylan Thomas’s tale, the real magic begins. 

"Christmas at the Local" by Theater Latté Da, a world premiere holiday show running in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2022
Scenic designer Benjamin Olsen is behind this gorgeous set for “Christmas at the Local.”

As with the songs, there is no introduction to “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” besides Dolo writing the name of the story on a sign with chalk under the heading “Tonight,” as if the bar is advertising it as the entertainment for the evening. The actors simply begin, reciting Thomas’s words, but passing the narration off between them, the spirit jumping from one to the other. If your only knowledge of Dylan is “Do not go gentle into that good night,” this reminiscence feels like a slightly older, much more eloquent version of the classic holiday movie A Christmas Story: child hijinx are interspersed with poignant truths and nostalgic scenes. This staged version has been set to music originally composed by Cerys Matthews and Mason Neely for a full orchestra, but here it’s been given reworked orchestrations by music director Jason Hansen (who is also in the cast and plays piano, guitar and mandolin) for a more folksy feel. After all, we are in a bar, not a concert hall. 

The cast is an eclectic, multi-talented bunch tasked with singing and playing a variety of instruments; but more than that, they each provide their own unique sensibilities that imbue Christmas at the Local with a richness that belies the static setting. The proceedings are grounded by Dolo, who holds the audience in the palm of her hand; Bradley Greenwald with his baritone horn and a constant twinkle in his eye can pull a laugh out of thin air; the magnetic Reese (who is a friend of mine) can’t help but attract the audience’s attention, and diversifies the music with both flute and saxophone; Matt Riehle leads one of my all-time favorite Christmas songs, “Fairytale of New York,” and his version may inspire you to join in; Bynum jumps easily between belting, keeping it cool at the keyboard, and crackling with childlike wonder; and Spencer Chandler feels most at home among the Welsh setting with his stoic demeanor and range of accordions. 

The most memorable performances of the evening for me were from Hansen, who my wife noted calls to mind Schroeder from Peanuts at the piano, and whose singing rang out clear like an unexpected bell in the winter’s night, and Shadko, whose violin playing would certainly be more notable if it were not for her charming voice which seemed to soothe the audience each time the song was passed to her. You won’t be surprised to see the long list of opera experience in her bio. 

For all the care the creative team put into crafting this narrative, and the nimble work done by this wonderful cast, things get somewhat muddied with the addition of “The Longing for Amazing Peace,” which is the new name of the Angelou poem now set to Chastity Brown’s music. It’s an uplifting piece on its own, ideal for the season — and there certainly will be no complaints when it’s capped off by falling snow in the theater, the audience awed, the lights finally dimmed over their heads — but it does feel a bit tacked onto the end, where the rest of the show feels like a finely tuned whole.

Christmas at the Local offers that ideal mix of holiday entertainment: a scoop of nostalgia, a side of song, a sprinkling of unearthed traditions that will be new to you, all wrapped up in the exquisite trappings Theater Latté Da has built its name on. But its secret is that it has been designed, from the name to the staging to the bowl of taffy I was passed during the show, to feel communal. You’ll leave this night at the theater with a sense of belonging, even if you happen to come alone. Will it become an annual holiday tradition on the level of Latté Da’s hit All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914? I’m not sure, as this lacks the same emotional gravity and the concert style gives it a one-off feel rather than lending itself to annual viewing, but make a trip to the Local and decide for yourself. 

Christmas at the Local

Theater Latté Da
The Ritz Theater
345 13th Ave. NE
Minneapolis, MN 55413

Playing through January 1, 2023
Buy tickets here

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