by Lucia Frangione
1420 W. 12th Av.
Nov. 23-Dec. 30
Start decking the halls and donning gay apparel. The holiday theatre season has officially begun.
Urinetown has been playing at the Firehall for a while, a remount of last year’s entertaining hit. But there’s nothing particularly seasonal about the pay-to-pee musical. Ditto for the Arts Club’s hugely successful Beauty and the Beast, re-opening soon.
Cariboo Magi is a genuine Christmas show, with a BC setting to boot. Also a remount, having played to sold-out houses during its premiere run at Pacific Theatre in 2001, Lucia Frangione’s delightful Nativity play doubles as a love letter to the theatre and an introduction to the multicultural history of the province.
It opens in San Diego in 1870, where Madame Fanny Dubeau (a very funny Frangione in a corset and shaky French accent) wonders how she’ll keep her saloon afloat after a visiting theatre company has stiffed her. Intercepting a lucrative offer to the company from gold rush boomtown Barkerville, she decides to pass her motley crew off as that acting troupe and head north (though first she thinks they’re going to Colombia) to perform for Christmas.
She drafts Englishman William, a lapsed reverend and drunk (loopy Dirk Van Stralen), very pregnant German immigrant actress Marta (Donna-Lea Ford), and Joe (Parnelli Parnes), who may or may not be the father but has come to marry Marta.
The most interesting character, Joe is multilingual and racially ambiguous. He may have aboriginal or Chinese ancestry or both. Fanny sees him only in racist terms, refusing even to take his “colored man money.” Joe insists he’s just Canadian—though he convinces Fanny that he’s actually a Mohican warrior. He also narrates parts of the play in verse à la Robert Service.
The journey to Barkerville is accomplished on Kevin McAllister’s cleverly adaptable set, which turns from a wooden platform into a boat, a sleigh, and even a camel. Along the way the troupe rehearses its repertoire of Hamlet, The Last of the Mohicans, A Christmas Carol, and Fanny’s saloon dance routine.
For their chaotic Christmas Eve performance of the Nativity according to the Gospel of Luke, they improvise wildly, desperately interpolate bits and pieces of the above plays, frantically change in and out of Nicole Bach’s colourful costumes, and make do with ridiculously inappropriate props pulled out of trunks. In the middle of it all a child is born to Joseph and Marta/Mary.
Cariboo Magi is always sweet, often funny, and in the end even moving, though it felt a little ragged on opening night. Director Kerry Van Der Griend hasn’t yet found all the show’s comic rhythms, and Parnes, who is otherwise excellent, needs more volume in his narrative role. But with a long run ahead, the show will likely settle in nicely.