Arts & Culture

City Circle's 'Christmas Cabaret' dashing away isolated Santa's blues with weekend virtual show

Katie Colletta and husband Keegan Christopher of Fairfax portray elves trying to stir up some Christmas cheer for a gloo
Katie Colletta and husband Keegan Christopher of Fairfax portray elves trying to stir up some Christmas cheer for a gloomy Santa in City Circle Theatre Company’s “A Christmas Cabaret.” Colletta also wrote and directed the 90-minute show, filmed at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts and airing on demand Friday through 11:59 p.m. Sunday. (City Circle photo)
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It’s been a tough year for everyone. Even Santa needs a brand-new bag.

He’s tumbled so low into the quarantine blues that he’s thinking of canceling Christmas. Aghast at the thought, two of his elves decide to stage an intervention full of holiday cheer, to turn his ho-ho-no into ho-ho-hope.

The Coralville Center for the Performing Arts has veered its sleigh to the North Pole, with City Circle Acting Company at the reins. Together, they’re filming a holiday happening for all ages, featuring area dashers, dancers and prancers of all ages.

Titled “A Christmas Cabaret,” the 90-minute show will stream online Friday through Sunday (12/18-20), with links, good for 48 hours, emailed to ticket holders. However, those who choose to watch on Sunday will need to wrap it up before 11:59 p.m., when the curtain drops on the link.

Head elf is Katie Colletta, 29, of Fairfax, who also wrote and directed the show. She’s teamed up with her real-life elf, husband Keegan Christopher, 30, and a merry band of performers from both ends of the Corridor, including four youths from City Circle’s Young Footliters.

Stepping into a featured role is 8-year-old Matthew Lamb of Iowa City, who has studied and performed locally, as well as in Kansas City, New York and Houston. His mother, Meredith Lamb, is the former managing director of the Young Footliters.

“He’s so cute,” said Elizabeth Tracey, artistic producer for City Circle, Young Footliters and this show. “He could be in movies.”

In fact, Matthew will appear in Lifetime cable network’s “My Sweet Holiday,” premiering on Christmas night.

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“When Liz approached me about the idea of writing and hosting a Christmas cabaret, we threw out several framing devices and we both glommed onto the idea of Keegan and I playing elves,” Colletta said. “They encapsulate the fun and whimsy we all need right now.

“As I began writing, it became clear to me that I needed to create a world that allowed us to operate within the necessary safety parameters of 2020. So what if the effects of 2020 had taken their toll on Santa? What if he was — understandably — depressed, and it was up to the elves to save Christmas?

“From there, it was just fun to imagine all the shenanigans that might ensue in pursuit of our goal. I landed on a Christmas Caroling Competition structure, which would allow me to showcase a variety of performers individually or in family groups, thereby allowing for appropriate social distancing and providing a natural secondary conflict,” she said.

“And as I continued the process, I felt that the idea had potential to truly feel like a full stage production. I’m so thankful for the folks at (the Coralville Center) who have helped make that vision a reality.”

City Circle has staged previous Christmas cabarets, under the direction of Chris Okiishi, so the concept has been established, and this year seemed like the right time to stage one again, Tracey said.

The rehearsal and filming structure placed safety-first for cast, crew, pianist Jason Sifford of Iowa City and the CoralVision videographers who filmed with several cameras placed in the auditorium seating area.

“We’re trying to treat it like a show, but we’re dealing with COVID,” Tracey said. “It is a stop-and-go format. We have the stage set up with lights and a set, and Katie did create a storyline that’s a cute little through-line to the music. We have the actors come in for their individual songs. We’ve spaced it out so we can get them to a mic, get them onstage safely, have them leave, and then the next group comes in.”

Surfaces were cleaned between segments, and everyone was required to wear a mask and keep apart when not onstage. People who live together could perform without masks, but viewers will see masked dancers prancing behind Marcia Hughes of Cedar Rapids as she belts out “The Man with the Bag.” And if you should ever see this mommy kissing Santa Claus, don’t be alarmed. Her husband, Scot Hughes, is portraying The Man.

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Other couples and siblings are in the show, as well, adding to the family-friendly atmosphere, Tracey said.

Changing scenery

Last year at this time, Tracey was directing the perennially popular musical, “Annie,” with what theater folks call “a cast of thousands.”

“Being a community theater, the bigger the cast, the bigger the audience,” Tracey said.

Big shows with big casts and big sales give a big boost to budgets. But that’s just not possible during the current pandemic. City Circle had to shut down its production of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” originally slated for early December, when a cast member was exposed to someone with COVID-19. Even though the cast member tested negative, the show was shelved for safety’s sake.

“Now with COVID, it’s such a different time,” Tracey said. “Even people’s viewing experiences have changed so dramatically. Not just that they can’t go into the theater, but do they even watch theater at home, or how much do they watch? It’s really an all-in experiment at the moment.

“What we learned from our very first production done with this style of recording (October’s “Songs for a New world”) is that instead of watching at a set time, 7:30 p.m., I don’t think our world operates that way anymore,” she noted. “Now we’re able to tune in whenever you want. There are people who maybe have a lot more energy at 9 o’clock in the morning. They can buy their ticket on Friday night and watch it on Saturday morning, or watch it Sunday afternoon.

“I think that flexibility is really important during COVID.”

Director Colletta had to pivot with the times, as well.

“This whole process has been an exercise in living in and appreciating every single moment,” she said. “Usually, the mantra of theater is, ‘The show must go on.’ In this case, there are all sorts of reasons the show might not have been able to ‘go on.’

“Our team’s safety — cast, crew, and creative — comes first. Full stop. So I was hyper-conscious and intentional about enjoying every step of the writing, creation and rehearsal processes, and I hope the cast has felt the same way. I think that’s allowed me to be more present and more fearless.”

The ultimate goal is to not only cheer up isolated Santa, but to cheer up isolated audiences, as well.

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“I hope viewers watch this show and feel a sense of hope,” Colletta said. “I hope they give themselves permission to feel the emotions that this year has given them, without judgment.

“Whether you watch the show by yourself or with other folks who are in your quarantine bubble, I hope you walk away feeling a sense of connectedness. We are not alone, even though there are definitely times it feels like it this year.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

City Circle Theatre Company: “A Christmas Cabaret”

• When: Available on demand Friday to Sunday (12/18-20)

• Where: Online link, good for 48 hours or until 11:59 p.m. Sunday, sent with ticket purchase

• Tickets: $17 for adults, $15 over age 55, $12 children and students, at Coralvillearts.org or call (319) 248-9370 for tickets or assistance in obtaining and using the viewing link

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