By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
If it were just a matter of a partridge in a pear tree, things would be so simple. But Janice Flower never thinks small.
And neither does the 39-year-old St. Albert Children’s Theatre, where full-bodied Broadway and Off-Broadway fare is regularly on the playbill, especially at Christmas time. And where casts of casts of three dozen kids or more, from single-digit ages on up, regularly share the stage.
Still, The 12 Days Of Christmas, the 12-show “virtual holiday cabaret” that starts Saturday on Culture St. Albert’s YouTube channel and runs nightly through Dec. 23, is epic even by the usual standards of complication that SACT and its long-time artistic director embrace as a matter of course.
It’s got to be the most intricate and challenging variety show of the season: 12 episodes, a different show online nightly, each with five or six performances, and a cast of 26 current troupe members, over 50 SACT alumni scattered across the continent, and 6 mc’s. “It blew up!” laughs Flower, who’s been with the troupe for 36 years, first as musical director and then since 1995 as artistic director. “Doing a big musical onstage is a thousand times easier than this!” she says cheerfully.
No guru has to teach Flower the improv mantra of saying Yes! Let’s! instead of What?! Are you nuts!?. It’s built into her showbiz DNA. “In the summer we knew our usual Christmas show wouldn’t be possible,” she says. “I floated the idea (of an online replacement). And I wasn’t specific at all…. The technology is so advanced right now. People shoot high-quality video on their phones; we’ve all been forced to join that parade.”
“So, what can it hurt to ask?”
The months and months of stage deprivation added up. Flower lit a veritable explosion of multi-faceted creativity. Suddenly two dozen local kids wanted in. And so did 50 SACT alumni, all ages and based everywhere in North America. It was a multi-generational extravaganza. “Some are in university; some have kids of their own!” Some of the kids are are old enough to have grandchildren…. It was an overwhelming response.”
Like the cast members themselves, who grow up and take their creative impulses everywhere — as actors, filmmakers, art directors, video editors, writers, recording artists, media personalities, photographers, theatre technicians, a Unitarian minister — there’s a huge variety in the performances.
Musical numbers rule, as you might expect; SATC is famous for its musicals. But there are also monologues and spoken word performances. There’s even an aerial silks routine. Says Flower, “some performers sang to tracks; a lot played their own instruments, mostly piano or guitar. Some got very inventive with their videos; they’re almost like music videos.”
We’ll see musical theatre numbers, free-standing songs, Christmas carols, an impressive complement of original material, including a song penned by Flower herself: Don’t Quit, chosen by Karina Cox, whom Edmonton audiences know from Mayfield shows and the Plain Janes production of Fun Home (she was on tour last year with We Will Rock You).
Given these pandemical times, most numbers are solos, unsurprisingly. But there are duets. Edmonton’s Luc Tellier who’s been cohorting with fellow actor Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks and her family in Toronto, do one from the musical Baby that they’d sung together years ago in a SACT production at age 17. “Now they’re finally the right age,” Flower laughs. And there are even four “group numbers.” One of the latter is a multi-screen Zoom video, “Brady-bunched together” as Flower puts it, by four “kids,” one in Edmonton, one in Vancouver, one in Toronto and one in Fort Lauderdale.
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the Oscar- and Tony-winning team (La La Land, Dear Evan Hansen) whose musical A Christmas Story was produced by SACT in 2014, have sent a special introduction to one of the group numbers.
Flower’s boss, St. Albert’s cultural programming manager Andrea Gammon, is herself a SACT alumnus. Her musical number happens against a backdrop of photography by award-winning Cochrane-based photographer Dana Pugh, who grew up doing SACT shows too. The much-travelled film-maker Justin Brunelle, a SACT grad whose video The Six Best Places in Canada, is part of the series, spent four days with a SACT team at the Arden Theatre in early November shooting individual live performances from the local artists, kids and alumni. All the editing has been done by alumni, too.
To browse the cast list with Flower is to realize, yet again, what a debt the professional theatre community here and across the country owes to the inspiration and early training provided by a troupe that’s pushing the big four-oh. It’s a veritable Who’s Who. To sample just a few names Edmonton audiences know well, Jenny McKillop, Plain Janes artistic director Kate Ryan, Josh Languedoc, Emily Dykes-Busby, have SACT credits in their bios. So do Steven Greenfield and Stephanie Wolfe. Stratford-based John Kirkpatrick, a Teatro La Quindicina regular of yore and a former artistic director of the Freewill Shakespeare Festival, contributes a number from the Broadway musical The Bronx Tale, in honour of the late COVIC-stricken Broadway star Nick Cordero.
Former SACT artistic directors Maralyn Ryan and John B. Lowe, Steven Greenfield, make an appearance. Toronto-based actor-playwright Damien Atkins (We Are Not Alone), a bona fide Canadian theatre star (who made his stage debut, age five, as an elf in the very first SACT show The Hobbit), opens The 12 Days of Christmas with a welcome message about the importance of theatre. “The first time I watched it I wept,” says Flower.
“I can’t wait to do what we do again!” says Flower. She heard that from lots of the performers, too, along with this: “It’s cathartic to have a reason to be singing again…. To be in a show in a theatre, it’ll be overwhelming!”
The 12 Days of Christmas: a virtual holiday cabaret
Theatre: St. Albert Children’s Theatre
Directed by: Janice Flower
Starring: 25 current troupe members and 50-plus alumni
Where: Culture St. Albert’s YouTube channel, available here.
Running: Saturday through Dec. 23, nightly at 7:30 p.m.(with a special-cut single episode on Telus Optik TV Dec., 22, on repeat through Jan. 5).