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'Twas? 'Twasn't?

Visions of sugar plums - and poems that aren't what they seem - frame the holiday musical, 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, at American Stage. Would you believe Clement Moore did not write those famous words?

By SAM FRENCH

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 17, 2001


Visions of sugar plums -- and poems that aren't what they seem -- frame the holiday musical, 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, at American Stage. Would you believe Clement Moore did not write those famous words?

ST. PETERSBURG -- 'Twas a dress rehearsal before performance, and without a hint of stage fright, the cast and crew members were preparing for opening night.

"I'm still having a problem with the reindeer antlers," said Carter Crisp, 15. "Also, I almost knocked over that tree."

I visited American Stage last week as cast and crew made last-minute changes, worked out the glitches and scrambled through two run-throughs of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, a new musical based on the classic poem. Actors pushed an old desk across the stage. Street urchins bustled about, putting on their raggedy clothes and floppy hats. Reindeer (or kids playing reindeer) straightened their antlers. And the director, Ellen Graham, head of the theater department at Eckerd College, told a cast of angels to hold still while they waited for their cue.

"It looks very squirrelly to have fidgety angels," she said.

'Twas the Night Before Christmas premiered Friday and continues through Dec. 30, with two performances Dec. 31 as part of St. Petersburg's First Night festivities. American Stage's co-founder and former artistic director Victoria Holloway wrote the book for the original production. Lee Ahlin, who has composed music for many American Stage productions and Webb's City: The Musical and is on the faculty at Shorecrest Preparatory School in St. Petersburg, wrote the lyrics and music for the play. The cast features a dozen children ages 5 to 17.

The play is based on a true controversy: Whether Clement Moore actually wrote the famous poem or merely embellished the work of another. It tells the story of a modern-day bookstore owner who gets a letter saying that Henry Livingston Jr., not Clement Moore, is the true author of the 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, first known as Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas. As the bookstore weighs the impact such news would have on its skyrocketing holiday sales of Moore's work, the audience is taken on a journey through the history of St. Nicholas; the life of poet Livingston, who had to leave on Christmas eve to fight in the Revolutionary War; and the dilemma faced a century later by Moore when his wife had the poem about a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer published under his name as a Christmas gift. (Little did the wife know about the poem's origin!)

The devil appears, horns flashing, to persuade Moore it's perfectly fine to claim the work as his own. A couple of angels sing another tune in Moore's other ear, accompanied by a jiving heavenly chorus behind a filmy scrim.

The play ends in a little Christmas pageant hosted by the bookstore.

I really enjoyed the songs and the play, and the acting was superb. Veteran actor Ronald J. Aulgur plays both Mr. Campizi, the bookstore owner, and Clement Moore. Brian Shea plays bookstore employee Dalton Borders and Henry Livingston. Emilia Sargent plays Holly, Mr. Campizi's niece, as well as the wives of Livingston and Moore.

Chorus members, most of whom have participated in American Stage summer camps, are Caitlyn Crisp, 14; Carter Crisp, 15; Amy Jayson, 5; Haley Jayson, 8; Kori Kistler, 13; Vanessa Livingston, 14; Alex Love, 11; Khana Riley, 14; Miriam Rochford, 12; Annagrace Shelton, 10; Daniel Tuegel, 15; and Michael Houghton Wagman, 17. Chorus members play multiple roles, including party guests, urchins, angels, reindeer and pageant children. They also switch the props and scenery to mark the change in eras.

Chorus members have had to juggle long rehearsal hours with homework, other commitments and in some cases, delayed bedtime.

In between run-throughs, I interviewed a few of the kids, including 5-year-old Amy Jayson, who has a surprise role at the end (I won't give it away here!).

Question: Is it hard being in the play?

Danny Tuegel: "It's hard and fun."

Vanessa Livingston: "Kind of, with school and everything."

Q: What do you like about the play?

Amy Jayson: "Being an actress."

Danny: "The wonderful friendship we all have."

Q: Does being in the play makes you feel any different?

Vanessa: "It makes me more into Christmas."

You'll feel more into Christmas, too, when you watch this show!

Sam French, 10, is in the fourth grade at Perkins Elementary Magnet School for the Arts, St. Petersburg.

* * *

IF YOU GO: 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, a new musical by Victoria Holloway (book) and Lee Ahlin (music and lyrics), through Dec. 30 at American Stage, 211 3rd St. S, St. Petersburg. Tickets: $15 for adults, $7 for children 12 and under. Call (727) 823-7529 for reservations. Two shows on Dec. 31 general seating with a First Night button.

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