by MATT REVILLE, Staff Writer
You gotta love a theater production where the last words spoken on stage before the lights come up and intermission arrives are: “What could possibly go wrong?” It sets you up for mayhem to come.
Just under three years ago – a lifetime or two, in pandemic terms – Encore Stage & Studio brought to life a charming production of “The Enchanted Bookshop.” And now, it’s back with “Enchanted Bookshop Christmas,” an early-holiday treat for the young ones who have been shut out of live performances for much of the past two years.
The plot revolves around the owner of a bookstore and her recently arrived sister, who has been laid off from a college-teaching job and has come for an extended holiday visit with her daughter in tow.
That story plays out in daylight. But when the sun goes down, the empty bookstore comes alive with the characters of various tomes, from Tom Sawyer and Pollyanna to Dr. Dolittle, Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz” and (personal idol) Ebenezer Scrooge. In their own little world, they were ironing out the intricacies of a Secret Santa gift exchange while also attempting to help the mortals out of their own predicaments.
Let’s start with the quibbles, in order to get them out of the way while skipping past the crack in the show about the dying newspaper industry (it is what it is …). Neither of the two bigger ones are the fault of the Encore team:
• As scripted, there are perhaps just a few too many of the literary characters tossed at the young audience, making for a bit of visual and verbal clutter on stage, particularly when the entire plot has to be resolved in less than 90 minutes.
• Arlington Public Schools continues to insist that those on its stages – despite being fully vaccinated – must be masked up, and unlike Encore’s last production where that proved no insurmountable detriment, this time it did cause some problems in hearing certain cast members. (Part of the challenge with this show is that Gunston Theatre I, where performances are held, is narrow and deep, while Thomas Jefferson Community Theatre, where most Encore shows take place, is wide and shallow. The takeaway: Sit up front for this show.)
Having thus reached my quibble quota, let’s talk about what’s right about the show.
Casting is very strong, particularly with the two sisters, Sydney Payne and Reagan Holland, and even more so with Juli Walitt as the daughter Annabelle, who brought her A-game to opening-week performances.
(Hanging around in these scenes as the family cat Bombalurina, Zora Howard uses creativity to make her character known to the audience without stepping on any toes, literally or figuratively.)
Of the many literary figures that inhabit the other part of the tale, many performances are solid; let me single out Ryan Hutt as Scrooge, Abigail Houle as the shoeless Cinderella and Drew Wright as the Nutcracker. Dylan Cestaro had only a few appearances as the Book Fairy, but made the most of them.
Susan Keady’s direction was brisk – one wondered, at intermission, how all the intersecting plot elements would be expeditiously untangled and put right in the second act, but one needn’t have worried.
Technical aspects were up to Encore’s usual standards: the warm holiday sets (Kristen Jepperson), costumes (Debra Leonard) and lighting (Gary Hauptman). While I was a tad critical of the sound situation earlier, sound consultant Kevin Curry was not the issue and deserves credit for his work. Matthew Heap served up intriguing compositions that moved things along creatively.
Theater for all ages is making its return across the region, another sign of normal(ish) times. For the youngster set, Encore is the region’s gold standard, so it’s good to have them back for a second production with more on the way.
“Enchanted Bookshop Christmas” returns for performances Dec. 3-5 at Gunston Arts Center Theatre I, 2700 South Lang St. in Arlington. For tickets and information, call (703) 548-1154 or see the Website at www.encorestage.org.
Juli Walitt is Annabelle and Sydney Payne is Margie in Encore Stage & Studio’s production of “Enchanted Bookshop Christmas.” (Cindy Kane Photography)