Review: The Holiday Special at Baltimore Theatre Project

TheatreBloom rating:

Tell me everything you think you know about Santa Claus. Of course, the only truth that resonates 100% inside the legend, the myth, and the mighty man that is Kris Kringle, is that Santa Claus is giving directly from the heart without expecting anything in return. So what if he also happens to be a homosexual? That’s the first half of The Holiday Special now appearing live on stage at The Baltimore Theatre Project. Written and performed by Jeffrey Solomon, The Santa Closet is an evocative and heartwarming tale of the true existence of Santa Claus and how the face of intolerance can ruin Christmas for everyone. Returning to BTP as an annual holiday tradition, solo performer Charlie Bethel fills out the second half of The Holiday Special with his adaptation of Charles Dickens’ The Seven Poor Travelers. A remarkably felicitous and inspiring tale of charity and kindness for the holidays, the lesser known Dickensian story is the perfect complement of simplicity to the first half of the double-billed program.

The Santa Closet

Jeffrey Solomon in The Santa Closet, the first of two features in The Holiday Special at Baltimore Theatre Project
Jeffrey Solomon in The Santa Closet, the first of two features in The Holiday Special at Baltimore Theatre Project

As mentioned, the show is written and performed by Jeffrey Solomon, explored as a documentary-style piece of theatre wherein all of the text appearing in the show was comprised from interviews conducted by Solomon, letters to Santa Claus, news footage from the “Santa-gate” incident, and other sources of holiday-related information. Reading as all good one-man-shows, Solomon’s work has a multitude of characters, roughly a dozen, all voiced and performed with exacting specificity by Solomon himself throughout the course of an hour.

The show credits a Director— Joe Brancato— as well as a Sound Design Team— Jill Du Boff and Jason Webb, with Webb providing original music in addition to Andrew Ingkavet, with projections designed by David Derr. While some of Derr’s projections are poignant— like the Families Against the Gay Agenda logo and the newspaper article capturing the headline “Ho Ho Homosexual?”, the majority of these additional effects (which at this performance had a series of technical hiccups and difficulties that prevented them from being fully experienced) feel superfluous. The story that Solomon has created is truly a fascinating one, unique in its existence as well as the message that it sends, and would stand far stronger on its own without the trappings of needing all these additional elements.

Solomon transitions between the dozen characters flawlessly with a simple addition of a hat or feather boa, letting the character work and differences expose itself in his vocal affectations, stances and postures, gestures, and overall physicality of each individual. Crafting and layering nuances into his nuances, Solomon provides each character with a vocal cadence specifically their own so that no two characters, no matter how similar in accent, age, gender, or attitude they may appear, sound the same. Captivating the audience with his portrayal of Gary— the young boy who just wants a Sparkle Ann doll for Christmas from Santa— Solomon gives a masterful performance from the opening of his show straight through to the end.

Jeffrey Solomon in The Santa Closet, the first of two features in The Holiday Special at The Baltimore Theatre Project
Jeffrey Solomon in The Santa Closet, the first of two features in The Holiday Special at The Baltimore Theatre Project

Telling the tale of how Santa has lived in the closet for hundreds of years and the revolting intolerance he faces upon being exposed, Solomon plays with the heart this festive season and deliberately showcases the innocence of children by including various letters addressed to the jolly old elf, asking questions like “how do I know if I’m gay or if I’m normal?” and other truly tear-jerking sentiments that only the naiveté of children could bring about in this season. It’s the inclusion of these tender moments, juxtaposed so sharply against the naysayers of the nation— like the rude and prickly Mrs. Benfield the president of Families Against the Gay Agenda— that show a sharp contrast and versatility of performance ability in Solomon’s repertoire.

There is something to be said for the creativity of the story as well. When the rest of the world is busy trying to exalt the praises of the “reason for the season”, Solomon’s work reminds us that Christmas is meant to be a time of loving and caring, giving and sharing, not scandal, intolerance, and degradation of the human spirit and soul. A powerful and touching tale, with witty moments peppered throughout— largely captured in his zany characters like flamboyant Josè and Rudolph-the-Red-Nosed-Equal-Rights-Activist— Solomon brings a resplendent new Christmas tradition to the stage to be enjoyed for people of all ages.

The Seven Poor Travelers

Charlie Bethel in The Seven Poor Travelers, the second of two programs featured in The Holiday Special at The Baltimore Theatre Project
Charlie Bethel in The Seven Poor Travelers, the second of two programs featured in The Holiday Special at The Baltimore Theatre Project

A modern day Dickens himself, solo narrative story teller and performer Charlie Bethel returns to Baltimore this season with his adaptation of The Seven Poor Travelers, as originated by Charles Dickens. In true Dickensian style, Bethel takes to the stage with a simple spotlight focused in a few particular places so that he can move about in his animated fashion and still be seen, and little else but the sweater on his back, and a few appropriately timed sound cues. Living in the narrative as Dickens himself once did, traveling about and spinning his tales on Christmas Eve, Bethel engages the audience to the lesser-recognized tale of Christmas spirit and merriment with a hearty dose of mirth in this the festive season.

Bethel possesses a frenetic frenzied energy throughout the entire portrayal of the piece that only slows for crucial moments of heightened drama. Mining Dickens’ rich poetic descriptions for picturesque imagery, Bethel slips over these descriptions of the beautiful city in the opening passages like a train racing through the scenery along the tracks— a dizzying blur that gives you only glimpses of wonder and beauty as they flash by. His descriptions of characters are no less as frantic, though delivered with such eager exuberance that it is impossible to find the spitfire pace frustrating.

Little affectations of his voice separate one character from another, though it’s his meta-telling of the tale within a tale that is truly impressive as he stops being the sprightly convivial man who brings poor travelers wassail and entertainment and starts being an author of a time-honored story steeped deep in the heart of charity and the soul of human kindness. Emotionally invested, particularly during these bits of the story, Bethel conveys to the audience the spirit of generosity and happiness that ought to exist year round within the breast of mankind, but especially at Christmas time.

Charlie Bethel, solo performer and adapter of The Seven Poor Travelers, appearing as the second feature in The Holiday Special at Baltimore Theatre Project
Charlie Bethel, solo performer and adapter of The Seven Poor Travelers, appearing as the second feature in The Holiday Special at Baltimore Theatre Project

Bethel’s indefatigable pacing keeps the Dickensian tale blasting along at hyper speed and at times some of the finer articulations of his details slip through the seconds of his ever-ticking clock. But what he lacks in articulated minutia he more than makes up for in hearty spirit and fascinating delivery. There is a sense of perpetual motion ever-present in Bethel’s delivery, even in moments of utter stillness, which is fascinating to behold. His ability to fully engage an audience to the point they become deliciously lost in his tale is wondrous and a mark of his talent as a performer.

A delightful double bill, with two earnest stories providing a strong balance to one another during the season where everything is meant to be merry and bright. The Holiday Special at Baltimore Theatre Project is exactly what one needs to welcome forth the spirit of Christmas this year.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission

The Holiday Special: The Santa Closet & The Seven Poor Travelers plays through December 20, 2015 at The Baltimore Theatre Project— 45 W. Preston Street in Baltimore, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 752-8558 or purchase them online.


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