Christmas Love Train hits the right holiday note
By JEFF MAGUIRE of the EMC
Mississippi Mudds welcome the holiday season with their latest production ‘Christmas Love Train’ which carries Carleton Place theatre goers on delightful journey toward new love, discovered in the midst of a western Canadian snowstorm.
We saw the second of five performances at the Town Hall Auditorium Saturday night. As I always do at the end of a Mudds’ performance, I left with a smile on my face and lightness in my step. When it comes to local theatre surely no one delivers more consistently than the Mississippi Mudds!
The ensemble cast of 40 treated the capacity audience to a full night of music and comedy.
The Mudds don’t need much excuse to sing. But writer Tony Scott (he also co-produces and directs) and musical director Kristine MacLaren have provided just the right vehicle to suit the combined talent on display.
A total of 19 separate songs and song medleys blend to make Christmas Love Train a mainly musical experience.
Scott’s story, spun from an idea first introduced two years ago by co-producer and director Francine Crampton, was perfect for an audience who were, themselves, seeking an escape from a cold winter night.
It is set two days before Christmas in British Columbia. At the train station spirits are high as passengers embark on a holiday excursion through the Rockies to Alberta.
The audience is first introduced to the main characters Louisa (nicely played by Leigh Gibson) and Arnie (Dean Adema). He was Sgt. Carp in last spring’s wonderful ‘Canajun Eh.
High school sweethearts, who went their separate ways years ago, the pair have both run into difficulties in their lives.
Louisa’s husband died in a plane crash leaving her with a “teenage” son Josh (Andrew McDougall) a self-confessed “train nut”. He accompanies his Mom and nearly drives the engineer Wayne (David Noseworthy) well, he nearly drives him nuts with questions about this particular train!
Arnie’s wife left him for another man. But he has brought his young daughter Phoebe (Jessica Rice) along for the ride.
Not surprisingly, romance is kindled. And not only for the former sweethearts. As the train heads eastward, through the Rockies, sparks also fly between Josh and Phoebe, setting the stage for one of the production’s excellent spin-offs.
This train is full of “characters” and Scott expertly weaves them into the story and the music.
The story-line heats up when the train runs into a snow drift and becomes hopelessly mired. The passengers have to wait for two days yes, right into Christmas Day for the equipment needed to free them. Pent up emotions explode all over the stuck ‘Love Train’.
The ‘femme-fatale’ of the piece is Louisa’s best friend (they nearly become ex-best friends) Sally. I thought Sally, who is well played by Kathleen Everett, is particularly well suited to this production!
A blond “bombshell”, with a string of broken hearts behind her, Sally very nearly adds the apparently unassuming Arnie to her list of conquests.
This story is, after all, about love. Another good side story involves passengers Donna (Judith Scott) and her cousin Ethel (Mudds’ founder Jan Ferguson). As Ethel tells the audience, she has to “keep an eye on Donna”, her cousin from England who is on the excursion after spending “40 years in a convent.”
Not surprisingly the “love bug” bites and Ethel spends most of the show trying to steer her cousin away from males of the species. Scott (her school marm look is classic) and Ferguson (no performer has a more expressive face than Jan) are worth the price of admission themselves!
I can’t possibly ignore the strong contribution of someone I think is one of Mudds’ rising stars. Lucy, the excursion coordinator or as engineer Wayne reminds us regularly “the tour guide” was one of the best performers Saturday. Lucy is played by Meredith Millman who doesn’t come by her obvious talent strangely. She’s the daughter of Mudds’ regular Louise Link who also has a part in the show as one of the altos.
The side play between the exasperated Wayne (armed with the weather forecast, he didn’t want to set off in the first place) and Lucy (she has to ease passenger tension on the stalled train) provides some of the best moments. Their “drunken revelers” scene if you can’t beat `em, join `em was my favourite bit.
Still, this production is as much about song and dance as anything and the music is what ultimately makes Christmas Love Train such an enjoyable journey.
It’s very much a group endeavor and I think the chorus really carries the show. The ensemble is particularly strong on thematic numbers such as ‘Steel Rails’, ‘Do the Locomotion’ and the stirring closing number ‘Midnight Flyer’.
In terms of individual performances Everett was excellent on ‘All Alone Am I’ and Gibson’s treatment of ‘Smile’ which closed Act 1 was engaging.
Duos play a major part in Christmas Love Train with Ferguson and Scott delivering a very funny ‘You’re Just In Love’, Rice and McDougall giving excellent treatment to The Beatles’ classic ‘All You Need Is Love’, while Gibson and Adema are strongest on ‘Can’t Smile Without You’, in combination with the chorus.
Adema has a deep, powerful voice which I came to appreciate in Canajun Eh. My only disappointment was that Gibson’s obviously sweet voice didn’t project well enough to reach us in the middle of the auditorium. She needed a volume boost to override the band.
As for the music, Mudds’ resident band leader and pianist Peter Brown and his five-member band were at the top of their game as usual. They never disappoint!
Also on the musical side I very much enjoyed the ABBA medley in Act 2. How can you possibly go wrong with ‘Mama Mia’?
A medley of love songs provided the perfect moment for some of Mudds’ well-timed audience participation. The night was made when, during ‘Pretty Woman’, a little girl across the aisle from me was drafted into a brief dance in front of the stage. The look on her face was priceless!
I was very nearly drawn into the show myself when always-on-the-prowl Donna made a sojourn into the audience and “somehow” singled me out. That was cute Judith!
Dancing also helps raise this production and the show’s dancers deserve acknowledgement. I was especially pleased to see Mudds’ newcomer Doris Ohlmann (who I’ve known for years) participating so enthusiastically along with Mimi Davis, Gail Standing, Jodi Samler, Kayla Campbell and Nancy Collie-O’Reilly. Outstanding ladies!
As I said this is an ensemble effort and I can’t mention everyone. But the Mudds wouldn’t be able to stage the shows they do without behind the scenes work by so many hard working people. The set design by David Whiteley and director-producer Scott, for example, was first-rate.
Saturday’s performance ended with a very appropriate Christmas Medley during which the audience was invited to participate as the Mississippi Mudds carried us into the holidays in style.
Christmas Love Train concludes with evening performances tonight (Friday) and Saturday at the historic Town Hall Auditorium. There is also a Saturday matinee. Evening shows begin at 8 p.m. with the matinee at 2 o’clock.
I’m told there are still a handful of tickets available for this weekend at the Remembrance Gift Shop, 141 Bridge St.
THE MAKING OF A MUDDS MUSICAL REVIEW
Christmas Love Train, the Mudds new musical review, is set to arrive in Carleton Place on November 30th. But where did this show come from? Where did it all begin?
The journey from idea to Mudds show is a story in itself. Four key people can claim credit for this production: Francine Crampton, retired assistant to the Assistant Auditor General, for her original story idea, musical choices and assistance to the director, Tony Scott, retired communication engineer, for his script, concept development and stage direction, Peter Brown, professional blues and jazz musician, for his musical arrangements and Kristine MacLaren, Smiths Falls District High School French and Music teacher (currently on leave), for choral training and musical direction.
Veteran Mudds writer and Director Tony Scott says “Francine began this project 2 years ago by dreaming of a romantic comedy that could be a vehicle for many of her favourite love songs. Hers was a timeless story line. A couple, once high school sweethearts meet again after many years, rekindle their love, and make a go of it despite the machinations of another woman. I offered to write a script around that idea, but was stymied until I thought of the Christmas train excursion/stuck in a snow drift back drop. I hope the story line dealing with second marriages, young love and the interfering 'cougar', will both amuse and intrigue the audience.”
Peter Brown, member of Mumbo Jumbo Voodoo Combo, leader of the Peter Brown Trio and regular at St James Gate on Thursdays with Mick Collins, is recognised by Mudds audiences as band leader during the shows. Most will not realise the extent of his creative input to a typical Mudds review. In this case he has woven many of Crampton’s and Scott’s musical choices into tuneful 4 part chorus arrangements. His expertise allows the Mudds to develop their shows into unique pieces of musical theatre. Jazz and blues musician Brown spent many hours preparing the music for Christmas Love Train and attends each rehearsal as accompanist.
Kristine MacLaren, musical director for Christmas Love Train observes, “The Mudds is a very interesting group in that all are welcome, trained or untrained, young and old to perform on stage. It is challenging to work with such a varying degree of skill and interest. Each person brings his/her talent to the mix. My role is to encourage each person to share that talent. The Mudds show company changes from one show to the next as members come and go. MacLaren recognises the need to make everyone feel musically successful right off the bat. “I have learned never to underestimate the talents of Mudds members. Some chorus members have dubbed me a slave driver (hopefully in fun) because I strive for the best sound we can make and I don't relent. But we do have a little fun along the way. They are an amazing group of individuals and singers!” As for being part of the directing team MacLaren says “I feel very supported in my ideas and my visions”.
Vision and an understanding of key ingredients play a big part in making a show such as Christmas Love Train successful. Having written several scripts for the Mudds, the last being Sleeping Beauty, Scott knows the important elements needed for a successful show. “The Mudds has built up a following based on its musical reviews and English style pantomimes. Common elements are: good choral singing, popular songs arranged for us by Peter Brown, an engaging story line, humour, a dependable crew and a talented cast” He believes that Christmas Love Train has all these ingredients. He pays special tribute to his three colleagues on the “creative” team.
Francine's music, chosen from her heart, will appeal to all adults. Peter’s arrangements and medleys fit the Mudds chorus very well. He knows what we can do. Kristine’s music direction is resulting in an exceptional chorus sound.” Scott and crampton share a dream, “that we will play to sold out enthusiastic audiences and get a standing O every night!”
Building the buzz for Christmas Love Train.
Jenny Pfitzer is the name behind much of the Mudds publicity these days. Building the buzz for a new show takes time and continuous effort.
Those of us taking part in this Mudds production know that if you buy a ticket for Christmas Love Train you are assured a wonderful two hours of entertainment. Twice weekly rehearsals are ensuring the singers/actors and musicians will reach their performing peak in time for opening night. Sets, props and costumes are coming together and the stage managers and directors are fine tuning the logistics. But all of this is for nothing if you don’t come out to the Carleton Place Town Hall to see one of the five performances scheduled for Nov 30th through Dec 8th.
How do we persuade you to, in the words of the Abba song “Take A Chance” and buy a ticket to ride the “Steel Rails” on our “Midnight Flyer”? Pfitzer along with a team of others is constantly on the look out for new ways to get your attention; to make sure you don’t miss out on an evening of laughter, and light hearted music.
We buy ads, we write articles, we put up posters and banners, we give out press releases and flyers and pass the word whenever we can, but Pfitzer’s enthusiasm for the subject and her graphic arts expertise can create the invaluable pictures that tell a thousand words.
This collage of pictures reflecting the theme of the show and highlighting some of the participants is a new approach from Pfitzer’s photoshop software. If you look closely you will spot some of your friends and neighbours waiting at the station as well as waving from the train. Intrigued? tempted by the idea of an evening of live entertainment right here in your own community? Run out and buy your ticket now.
Christmas Love Train opens at the Carleton Place Town Hall on Friday November 30th at 8 p.m.