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Review: The Arden Cabaret Series: ‘Tell Me A Story: ’Tis the Season’ at the Arden Theatre

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Since its introduction last season, the Arden Theatre’s cabaret season has provided a dependable stream of the city’s best performers providing old songs, new songs, and comedy. But the latest entry in the series was something else altogether.

Hillary Rea. Photo courtesy of The Arden Theatre.

On Saturday night, the Arden presented a one-night event called Tell Me A Story: ’Tis the Season. It was a night devoted to storytelling – true stories told by performers in the confessional style made popular by radio shows and podcasts like The Moth, Mortified, and Snap Judgment. Hillary Rea, a veteran storyteller who has been leading Tell Me A Story live shows at local coffee shops since 2011, brought her revue to a higher-profile setting with this special event.

So what is a storytelling evening like? Performers take turns coming to the stage and telling a five- or ten-minute story from their life. That’s about it. But if that doesn’t sound special, just wait: the best storytellers make their tales compelling through humor, drama and observation.

The Arden’s event featured veteran storytellers who perform on the New York and Philadelphia circuits, as well as several well-known Philadelphia actors. This evening one was loosely based around a seasonal theme – though “seasonal” was broadly defined and didn’t always pertain to the Christmas season.

Several of the stories concerned a clash of cultures at the holiday season. Rea, using a series of funny anecdotes, told of living in Japan as a young adult and bumping up against an unusual Christmas tradition.

Nisse Greenberg’s dry, deadpan wit was perfect for a story of being the only Jewish student at Christmastime in a rural school in Maine.

Bi Jean Ngo. Photo courtesy of The Arden Theatre.

Bi Jean Ngo radiated joy with her story of how she helped her immigrant parents learn about the American tradition of Thanksgiving.

Other stories dealt with Christmas as seen through a child’s eyes, like Jen Childs’ wry tale of a baby doll she received as a child and how it prepared her – or rather, failed to prepare her – for motherhood.

Jen Childs. Photo courtesy of The Arden Theatre.

Valerie DiMambro also dealt with the holidays, telling of why she believed in Santa longer than her schoolmates did. However, DiMambro’s story was the sole disappointment of the evening; it lacked humor and storytelling clarity.

Other stories had less of a connection to the holidays, such as Bradley Wrenn’s tale of how his family survived a harrowing voyage in Singapore. This story worked well, though, as an excellent demonstration of how to build suspense.

And Cathy Simpson told the most dramatic story of the evening, tracing her teenage years from Missouri to Pennsylvania to Mississippi. She told of outrunning the Klan and meeting a future theatrical legend; she even sang a snippet of a Nina Simone classic. The story’s connection to the evening’s theme may have been tenuous, but Simpson made such a mesmerizing storyteller that it didn’t matter much.

Pianist Barbara Browne played snippets of holiday favorites between the performances.

All in all, the Arden’s inaugural Tell Me A Story event was a marvelous evening. At its best, it showed how the art of storytelling – with no special effects – can keep an audience spellbound.

Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.

The Arden Cabaret Series – Tell Me A Story: ’Tis the Season ran at the Arden Theatre’s Hamilton Family Arts Center on Saturday, December 11, 2016. The series continues with Mary Martello (February 17th and 18th), Ben Dibble (March 17th and 18th), and Alex Keiper & Friends (June 23rd and 24th). For tickets, call the box office at (215) 922-1122, or purchase them online.

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