A Christmas tale to fire the warm fuzzies inside

Chemainus Theatre promises to add the element of surprise to its annual feel-good musical holiday treat

Chemainus Theatre Festival’s Countryside Christmas opens Friday with a pledge to get your holiday fires burning.

It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol and other traditional Christmas time classics always bring warm and fuzzy feelings, but audiences know exactly what’s coming next.

The Chemainus Theatre Festival is presenting something different for the holidays with the staging of Countryside Christmas Nov. 11 through December 31, a production that revives the element of surprise and takes people on a voyage of discovery.

It’s sure to stir the emotions much in the same way Memories Of A Christmas Ornament did in 1997.

The play, co-written by CTF artistic director Mark DuMez and education coordinator Nicolle Nattrass, revolves around the Cornwall family sharing holiday cheer and songs on Christmas Eve at its cottage on Vancouver Island.

“It has a local setting which is fun and it has things that are unique to the West Coast,’’ said Julie McIsaac, 30, a veteran of seven CTF productions who’s making her directorial debut in Chemainus.

“I have directed smaller plays in Vancouver. I’m having a ton of fun with it and hoping to do more.’’

Members of a three-piece band and the actors themselves perform songs of the season from popular artists ranging from John Denver and the Carpenters to Credence Clearwater Revival.

These include Christmas favourites such as Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree and Run, Run Rudolph.

“They wanted to set the show in the mid-80s,’’ explained McIsaac. “That meant all the music had to come previous to that date.

“We’ve got a great mix for any musical taste. At the same time, we’re performing it in a brand new way with all new musical arrangements.’’

A fair estimate, McIsaac said, would be a 50-50 split between musical and theatrical segments.

She praised the efforts of DuMez and Nattrass for bringing the human element of the Cornwalls into the mix.

“There’s tons of familiar music and yet they’ve got this really great story in there,’’ McIsaac said. “They’ve done a great job in finding a balance. I really feel like there’s going to be something in it for everyone.’’

People will readily relate to some of the characters in their own family setting, she added.

“Everyone’s going to be able to come and hear their relatives speaking in a sense.’’

Joelle Rabu plays mom Judy Cornwall, one of six actors in the show.

“I’m thrilled to see a fresh new Christmas production coming to the stage,’’ she said.

“It’s very warm and tender and zany. It’s got a bit of everything.’’

Rabu’s Judy and her husband of 30 years Harry (Stephen Sparks) are sticklers for Christmas routines.

“We have song lists we must sing, we have traditional dinners we must eat,’’ said Rabu.

“He and I are in that world.’’

Family dynamics come into play when 16-year-old son Tom (Benjamin Elliott) shows up unexpectedly and 20-year-old daughter Sissy (Jennie Neumann) enters into a serious relationship.

Rabu clearly sees some of herself in Judy: “I think when I chastise my son and my husband, yet Judy is the traditionalist, really,’’ she said.

“She’s constantly cleaning or decorating. I am that person in that family.’’

Juggling several duties is a given for Rabu’s Judy.

“I’m on percussion in some of the numbers and my daughter as well,’’ she said.

“Don’t forget, I’m busy cooking a turkey here.’’

Anton Lipovetzky (Kyle/Grandma Cornwall) and Mark Hellman (neighbour Whiskey Joe Nelson) are the other cast members.

“There are plenty of things going wrong with the cottage,’’ hinted McIsaac. “I grew up in cottage country in Ontario. It’s close to my heart, for sure.’’

“I’m really looking forward to seeing how the audience will enjoy this,’’ said Rabu.

“It’s brand new. It’s fresh. It still has all that tradition.’’

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