Photo by Rich Ryan
The Ordway Center for the Performing Arts is known for presenting some of the classics during the holiday time, like recent years’ performances of The Sound of Music, White Christmas, Annie, and even a newer classic, Elf (opening Dec. 5). However, when you hear that this holiday season also includes a world premiere stage reading of Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol—with music and lyrics written by Dolly Parton—the twist on the beloved tale is apparent.
The stage reading, which will take place in the Ordway’s concert hall on Nov. 17 and 18, will be more akin to one of those nostalgic radio shows than the full production people might be expecting, says producing artistic director Rod Kaats. That means no costumes, no set, no lighting, but a focus on storytelling with the cast of nine sitting on stage with a live band. The show’s cast includes Twin Cities favorites Caroline Innerbichler, Dane Stauffer, and Mabel Weismann, the 11-year-old who has played a surprising amount of holiday-themed roles, including Belinda Cratchit in the Guthrie’s A Christmas Carol, Cindy Lou Who in Children’s Theatre Co.’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Gretl in The Sound of Music.
This will be the first time ever that Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol has been performed in any capacity in front of an audience, and because of that, the preparation leading up to it seems like a whirlwind. “We just received the script [yesterday],” Kaats said Oct. 29. “We agreed to do the show before we ever read the full script or even heard the songs because they are still writing the show. … It’s almost like a test kitchen, right? It’s a recipe you’ve never cooked before, and we’re going to be cooking the recipe and invited 900 people each night to come and see it.”
While that might sound risky, to Kaats, securing the world premiere was both a no-brainer and a fluke (as these things often are, he laughs). Parton wrote the music to the piece, but the actual book was written by a friend of Kaats’, David H. Bell, whose resume includes an adaptation (and choreography and direction) of Hot Mikado, the direction and choreography of Children of Eden, and an adaptation of A Christmas Carol that has been performed in Pittsburgh, D.C., and Atlanta for more than 20 years. When Kaats found out about this new project from Bell, he went for it, and he’s hoping to bring more staged readings and new works to the Ordway in the future.
“There’s something very unique about hearing your material songs and words spoken or sung in front of the audience for the first time. There’s something magical,” Kaats says. “In that way, the Ordway audience, since this is the very first time ever these authors have heard this material live, it’s almost like a collaborator in the process in helping the authors understand that they’ve written.”