For years every holiday season in Wilmington has been looked upon with excitement because of numerous tinsel-covered happenings and celebrations: Enchanted Airlie, The Nutcracker Ballet, a screening of Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” not to mention innumerable productions of “A Christmas Carol.” About a decade or so ago City Stage—then run by Cape Fear Arts LLC—took a gamble and began a different take on the merriment of all the “ho! ho! ho!” Rather than dancing with Sugar Plum Fairies through the Land of the Sweets, they threw an elf costume on one lead man to bring to life the excruciating details of working in Macy’s flagship store in “SantaLand” during the holidays.
Full of snarky musings, ridiculous scenarios and general despondency about the grand commercialism of Christmas, “SantaLand Diaries” hit its hilarious mark with audiences. Originally written as an essay by the incomparably witty David Sedaris, “The SantaLand Diaries” aired on NPR’s Morning Edition in 1992. In 1994, Joe Mantello adapted the story as a stage play for the Atlantic Theater Company. Since, it’s taken off in community theatre circles nationwide each and every November and December.
Wilmingtonians have come to covet the one-man show and its grumpy lead, Crumpet. Played by veteran acting stalwarts, like Justin Smith, Steve Vernon, Jason Hatfield, Cullen Moss, and Zach Hanner, Crumpet will return in 2015 with Anthony David Lawson taking on his testy tales. Though City Stage stopped producing the holiday classic, Lawson’s new company, Panache Theatrical Productions, will be making their debut with it at Red Barn Studio Theatre.
“I wanted to do the show ever since it was a City Stage tradition,” says Lawson—whose last production included directing “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” for Opera House in the fall. “And I do say ‘tradition.’ A lot of people in this town have a problem with how often shows are repeated, but I think there’s a fine line between tradition and repetition.”
Lawson’s take on Crumpet comes down to a shared paradigm. The character and the man have the same views, basically, on dealing with the public.
“We both feel the need to entertain ourselves when faced with a boring situation,” Lawson tells. “We also thrive off chaos—the busier the better. . . . But, honestly it just isn’t really that hard for me to play disgruntled. (Don’t tell my boss that.)”
Lawson has wanted to do the show for years now. When he and his Panache partner, Holli Saperstein, decided to launch a new community theatre, the opportunity to take on Crumpet felt right. David Lee Kent is directing their debut.
“One [of the] hardest parts is remembering to keep everyone else in mind,” Lawson says of developing Crumpet. With it being a one-man production, every line and its delivery rests on his shoulders. “They don’t know what you’re thinking at all times,” he says of his colleagues. “You spend so much time with yourself and knowing where you’re going with a joke or what you’re feeling that you forget to let the producer, director and carolers—and everyone else—know what’s going on inside your mind.”
City Stage added a dose of depth to the show by including the Ho, Ho, Ho’s—a trio of scantily dressed elf-helpers who sing naughty tunes. Lawson and Saperstein are adding a cappella carols with the “Not Ready for Christmas Carolers,” featuring Jamey Saperstein and Amber Sheets, with music direction by Kaitlin Baden.
“City Stage had a good thing going with the Ho, Ho, Ho’s, but that was completely their thing and we didn’t want to copy that at all,” Lawson clarifies. “I think Christmas music is an important part of any Christmas show, and also the show would be a bit short if we didn’t have some sort of filler, so I brought in some carolers to add a little bit of dynamic to the characters that I end up talking about in the show.”
Lawson and Saperstein decided to launch Panache after creatively loafing on Saperstein’s front porch one day. Both are heavily involved with the theatre scene and began discussing shows they would like to do and companies they should pitch them to.
“Problem is: Most of the companies have boards, so you’re not just trying to convince one person to do a show, you’re convincing an entire board,” Lawson notes.
So they took out the middle man. They intended on doing only one show. Then Saperstein told Lawson: “OK, now give me four more; we’re doing a whole season.”
Lawson admittedly believed Wilmington did not need another theatre company. But after pondering the possibilities, he wanted it to be approachable in the way it works with other companies.
“We want to work hand-in-hand with the pre-existing companies,” he explains. “We run our seasons by each other and see what we can do to help each other out. We want to be a company that really just helps perpetuate the community feel of community theater.”
Saperstein manages the business side of it all, while Lawson is the “big idea man.” He also developed the comapny name. “I came up with ‘Panache’ because ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ is my favorite play, and it’s the last word of the play,” he tells.
Lawson and Saperstein chose smaller shows primarily in their first year that would require a minimal cast of one to four people. They’ll launch with “SantaLand Diaries” before taking on “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” “A Few Good Me” and “Jeffrey.” They’ll end the season with their largest show, “Toxic Avenger the Musical,” which will be a NC premiere.
However, it all starts with a man in a suit—a striped suit with a pointy hat and pointy shoes. That’s it. Other than a few carolers and stage decorated with massive Christmas regalia. Panache will launch with “SantaLand Diaries” this weekend.
“The script is very well-crafted,” Lawson details. “It’s a lot for one person to memorize but everything that Crumpet says leads into the next thing—there are guideposts all the way along so you don’t get terribly lost.”