Whiskey’s for Drinking; Water’s for Fighting Over

mulhollanduserpic=dramamasksOver 10 years ago, Bill Robens had an inspired idea to create a musical that combined the well-known Dickens’ story “A Christmas Carol” (I particularly like this musicalized version) with the story of William Mulholland. The result, “A Mulholland Christmas Carol“, was introduced to Los Angeles in 2002, and has played annually at various theatres (including Sacred Fools and Theatre of Note (FB)). Last night, we caught the penultimate performance of the 2012 edition at Theatre of Note (FB), and were thoroughly delighted. Of course, we were lucky to not sit in the splash zone, for everyone knows that all dams leak.

Everyone is likely to be familiar with the story of “A Christmas Carol”. Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, visits from the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future, all with the goal of bringing the joy of Christmas to the hard-hearted, parsimonious Ebenezer Scrooge. If for some reason you’ve been living under a rock, get the album of the concert version I linked earlier, see one of the various movie versions, or one of the innumerable stage productions that come out of the woodwork this time of year.

If you are not from Los Angeles, you are likely less familiar with the story of William Mulholland. Mulholland was an Irish immigrant with no formal engineering training. Coming to Los Angeles in 1878, Mulholland got a job cleaning out the Zanje Madre, the mother ditch that diverted water from the Los Angeles River to the growing city. Within 8 years, he had become superintendent of the Los Angeles Water Company, and retained that position after the city took over the water system when it created the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). As the city grew, it needed more water than the river could provide. A corrupt former mayor, Fred Eaton, convinced the city to look northward to Inyo County and the communities of the Owens Valley near Bishop. Eaton, working the Bureau of Reclamation, bought up all the land in the area, selling it to the city to provide the land for the Owens Aqueduct. Other cities leaders, such as Harrison Grey Otis of the LA Times, Moses Sherman of the Pacific Electric, knew of the scheme and bought up land in the San Fernando Valley while promoting the aqueduct. Mulholland oversaw the the construction of the aqueduct (entirely gravity fed), which basically turned productive cropland in the Owens Valley into a dustbowl, providing water for LA at the expense of the eastern Sierra. Eaton also bought up land in Long Valley for a “cattle ranch”, and then offered to sell it to the city for $1 million when they needed it for a reservoir. Mulholland instead opted to build the reservoir at San Francisquito Canyon near Newhall. What he didn’t know was that the soil was unstable and he had built on an earthquake fault. When the dam collapsed in 1928, over 500 lives were lost, and William Mulholland was destroyed — both in terms of his career and mentally. [The city later went on to build a second aqueduct and decimate the Owens Valley more; it wasn’t until the last couple of years that the city agreed to restore limited water flow to the area. Los Angeles has similarly siphoned water from the Colorado River and from Northern California through the California Water Project. Water wars shape the west.]

A Mulholland Christmas Carol” combines these two stories into one: Mulholland becomes Scrooge, and the family of Harvey Van Norman (an Owens Valley engineer who was helping Mulholland) stands in for Cratchit’s family. Mulholland isn’t parsimonious with money; it is with water: refusing to give water to the parched Owens Valley for Christmas by opening the Alabama Gates, or even a cup for the beggar in the street. Even Tiny Tim is present, in the form of Van Norman’s adopted son, Poquito Pablito. The three ghosts are present as well: the first, John Wesley Powell (who is famous for discovering the Grand Canyon and Colorado River) gets the greatest part of the story: illustrating Mulholland’s history, his start as a ditch digger, his stint at the private Los Angeles Water Company where he informs them of the limitations of the water system with its wooden pipes and leaky dams (this is when the company owners sing “All Dams Leak”), the land grab for the aqueduct by Fred Eaton and others, the love of Mulholland for his wife, and the construction of the aqueduct. The ghost of Christmas Present is Teddy Roosevelt, showing Mulholland what life is like for the Van Norman family in the Owens Valley. He also introduces the two children, Urban Sprawl and Urban Decay, while echoing Mulholland’s words — “So you can’t live in the Owens Valley; don’t they accept immigrants in Barstow?”  The ghost of Christmas Future is an unnamed spectre as in the original; he shows Mulholland the collapse of the San Francisquito dam and Mulholland’s eventual destruction. As with the original story, Mulholland is eventually redeemed and doesn’t fill the San Francisquto. He opens the gates and restores the Owens Valley, leaving Los Angeles to remain the sleepy pueblo town it should always be. (if you hadn’t figured it out by now, the story is a little biased).

This combination works surprisingly well (and actually gets much of Mulholland’s story correct, except (of course) for the ending). It really does provide a great education regarding the water wars, and is a unique production among the many Christmas shows in Los Angeles this winter. Surprisingly, it has even played up in Inyo County and the Owens Valley where the LA DWP is still hated, and where until recently the Owens River was still dry. I’ll note the theatre plays up the story as well: not only do they sell a CD of the show ($10 at the theatre), but they sell bottles of “pure Owens Valley water” and dirty “LA Water”, Christmas ornaments, and all sorts of other stuff. Christmas a bullshit indeed!

Augmenting the story are music and lyrics by Bill Robens, with musical arrangements and direction by Bill Newlin (FB). The music has a bluegrass feel to it, and is performed by an onstage band using guitars, mandolins, banjos, a washtub bass, wooden boxes and other percussion instruments. For the most part, it is quite enjoyable. A few songs could use a little fine tuning and stronger singers.

With a count of seventeen (17), the cast for the show is extremely large, especially when you consider that it is performed in under-99 seat venues (the Theatre of Note space was set for 43).   I’ll also note that this production didn’t strive for intense realism in their performances; as with the case of A Christmas Carol, there is a melodramatic aspect to the story and performances were intentionally overplayed at times. In the lead positions were Christopher Neiman‡ (FB) as Old Mulholland and Trevor H. Olsen†‡ as Young Mulholland. Neiman’s Old Mulholland was well performed and played, although his singing voice didn’t quite have the strength or range of some of the other singers. This wasn’t that much of a detriment, as most of the songs were performed by the entire ensemble. Olsen’s Young Mulholland was quite strong in both the singing and performance department. He captured Mulholland’s youthful exuberance well, and had a pleasant singing voice.

All of the other performers played multiple characters throughout the performance. Some were more notable than others, although all were quite a treat to watch. The ensemble, as a whole, demonstrated something that I like to see in a cast: they thoroughly enjoyed doing this show, and that joy translated in the performance and out to an audience. They were not just going “through the moves”. They are all to be commended for doing this, and the director, Alina Phelen† (FB), deserves credit for bringing this out in her cast.

Anyway, now to highlight some ensemble members: Steven Biggs† (FB) (John Wesley Powell, Reporter #1, Rub) was a delight as John Wesley Powell (the ghost of Christmas Past), playfully bringing out Mulholland’s history. Similarly, Patrick McGowan (FB) (Teddy, Head Detective, Gov. George Pardee) gave a bully performance as Teddy Roosevelt (the ghost of Christmas Present), nailing his song that opened the second act. Stephen Simon†‡ (FB) (Fred Eaton, Peter Van Norman) was a delight as Fred Eaton, the Jacob Marley of the story who warned Mulholland of the ghosts and orchestrated the land grabs in the Owens and San Fernando valleys. Dan Wingard†‡ (FB) (Harvey Van Norman, Wilfred Watterson, Newsie 3) was notable for his comic timing, both as Harvey Van Norman (the Bob Cratchit of the story), as well as Wilfred Watterson, the owner of the Inyo County Bank. His behavior when he was arrested for embezzlement was delightful, channeling Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. Also demonstrating strong comic timing were Genemichael Barrera (Harrison Gray Otis, Poquito Pablito, Newsie 2) and Kirsten Vangsness†‡ (FB) (Jenkins, Ellen Beech Yaw, Mary Van Norman). Although Barrera’s Otis could have been stronger, he was a comic joy as Poquito Pablito, including a wonderful Señor Wences voice. Vangness was mostly in the background as an unnamed female character, but she was notable for her comic performance as Yaw in the “Hail the Water” number, as well as her background mannerisms as Mary Van Norman.

Rounding out the ensemble were Christine Breihan‡ (FB) (Woman in Rags, Childs, Cockney Boy, Rae), Lauren Dobbins Webb (FB) (Boy, Charity Gal, Mary Austin, Martha Van Norman), Linda Graves†‡ (FB) (Well Woman, Aguilar, Nurse Jones), Lucy Griffin-Nemeth‡ (FB) (Melinda Van Norman, Lois, Newsie 1), David Guerra (Stafford Austin, Bob, Reporter 2), Brad C. Light†‡ (FB) (George K. Porter, Guard, Other Detective, Mayor Rose), Scott McKinley†‡ (FB) (Charity Guy, J. B. Lippincott, St. Francis), Lynn Odell†‡ (FB) (Mrs. Rube, Salesman, Mrs. Van Norman), Rebecca Sigl‡ (FB) (Lillie, Moses Sherman, Boy).
(† denotes members of Actors Equity; ‡ denotes members of SAG/AFTRA)

Also on stage were the musicians, playing a wide variety of instruments. On guitar were Chad Ellis (FB) (banjo as well), David Guerra (who was also one of the actors), and Bill Robens (FB). Percussion on a variety of instruments (including a wooden box) was provided by Gino Gamboa (FB). Richard McElroy/FB played the washtub bass.

Turning to the artistic staff. The production was directed by Alina Phelen†(FB), who did a great job of bringing out the enthusiasm and joy in her actors, and making the performances somewhat realistic (as much as anything in A Christmas Carol variant can be). Choreography was by Lindsay Martin (FB), who found wonderful ways to make movement and dance occur in the small Theatre of NOTE space. Musical direction and orchestrations were by Bill Newlin (FB) and worked well. Gwenmarie White (FB) was the assistant director.

Now to the technical. Theatre of NOTE has a small rectangular space. William Moore Jr.’s set design used the space well, with tiered benches along two sides for the actors. This was augmented by Misty Carlisle‘s (FB) props, David Chitwood/FB‘s graphics and Bryan Maier/FB‘s projections. Maier’s projections were particularly notable, providing reference graphics as well as pictures of the dam and aqueduct. Ryan Brodkin‘s (FB) sound design was also notable, providing appropriate water and background sounds to set the locale for the actions. Matt Richter‘s (FB) lighting was also effective, in particular the lights under the benches and throughout the audience.  Kelly Egan (FB) was the stage manager. “A Mulholland Christmas Carol” was produced by John Money/FB and Jenna Banko/FB.

Today is the last performance of “A Mulholland Christmas Carol” at Theatre of NOTE. Alas, it is old out. Hopefully, it will be back next year.

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:  Our 2012 theatre year ends next week with Other Desert Cities at the Taper on December 29. (I”ll also note we’ll likely see the Les Miz movie on Christmas, followed (of course) by Chinese food). Turning to 2013… January starts with Anything Goes” at the Ahmanson on January 6. January 12 is currently held for the MoTAS Shabbat, although I may book something in the evening. January 19 is currently open, as Erin returns to Berkeley the next day; supposedly, there may be an event at REP of interest that evening. January 26 is being held for the just announced production of Triassic Parq–The Musical at the Chance Theatre in Orange County. February will start with the first play of the REP season, “Putnam County Spelling Bee“.  February 9 is being held for “Backbeat” at the Ahmanson. February 16 brings “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” at Cabrillo Music Theatre, and the last weekend of February is currently open. March starts with “I’ll Be Back Before Midnight” at the Colony. After a break for Fogcon (although I may do something here), theatre picks up with “Catch Me If You Can” at Broadway LA/Pantages on March 16 and “Boeing Boeing” at REP East on March 23. March may also bring “End of the Rainbow” at the Ahmanson, most likely on March 30. April will bring the Southern California Renaissance Faire (huzzah for the $15 Holidazzle sale), “Grease” at Cabrillo Music Theatre, and “To Kill a Mockingbird” at REP East. I’m also keeping my eyes open as the various theatres start making their 2013 season announcements. Lastly, what few dates we do have open may be filled by productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411, or discussed in the various LA Stage Blogs I read (I particularly recommend Musicals in LA and LA Stage Times).


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