I have seen many Christmas shows, each one enjoyable in its own way, but I’ve never seen a production as moving, as unusual, and as artistically satisfying as this unique version of A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas, based on the Irish Repertory Theatre of New York’s adaptation, featuring both traditional and contemporary holiday music.
Performed by Aaron Cromie, Scott Greer, Maggie Lakes, Matthew Mastronardi, and Amanda Jill Robinson, it creates an atmosphere from the moment you arrive, with hot cider waiting for you, and with a spirit of goodness accompanying you for quite some time—long after you have left Studio 3 at the Walnut Street Theatre, still humming along.
This delightful production appealed to all senses—including a sense of belonging to an amazing family. Chances are that you will sing along during two numbers. In this interview, we asked Director Aaron Cromie and Music Director Matthew Mastronardi to take us behind the scenes of this most joyful Welsh Christmas in Philadelphia.
Henrik Eger: Tell us about your professional background as an artistic and as a music director that eventually led you to this production.
Aaron Cromie: I’m the director and one of the musician performers. I was invited by the Walnut’s Producing Artistic Director, Bernard Havard. I believe that my history as a former apprentice with the Theatre, combined with my talent as an actor, musician, and director, is what lead me to working on this piece.
Matthew Mastronardi: I met Aaron when I was in College at University of the Arts, and he was one of my professors. Through the years, I have worked on many projects with Aaron, and when he approached me with this project, I was very excited and a little nervous because this is my first professional experience as a music director. I’ve worked as an actor/musician on many productions, and some times that requires you to create your own parts for your instrument in each song. So using all that experience and my knowledge in music theory, I felt up to the task. I really enjoyed the arranging of the songs, and helping to tell the story through the music.
Present the challenges you faced in directing the story of A Child’s Christmas in Wales, and give an example or two on how you handled the artistic or the musical part of this beautiful piece.
Aaron: As director, the largest challenge was tackling a piece without a dramatic arc or defined characters. We, as an ensemble, worked to discover the comic gems and the genuine moments within Thomas’ poem to strengthen the path of the story as a play. Once these moments were defined, I used the strengths of each cast member to bring forward the discoveries to the audience.
Matthew: I think the biggest challenge was to not use every instrument that this cast can play for every song. We have such an incredibly talented ensemble, and I wanted to make sure everyone was featured throughout the show, but it was also important to have a variety of arrangements from song to song. So some of us don’t play certain songs, not because we can’t, but in order to have more intimate arrangements for certain songs. It was very exciting and fun to put together the instruments used for each song.
Your work stood out, among others, by its flawless ensemble work. Could you give some examples of how you worked with the actors and musicians, including their input on the production?
Aaron: “The best idea in the room wins” is a mantra shared among many of my acting colleagues. This was what we applied to our rehearsals. Everyone had a voice. That, combined with incorporating the needs of the multiple instruments, played in the show. With everyone playing instruments, our needs as musicians led to many of the staging decisions made in the room.
Matthew: I looked at each song and then I asked the cast what instruments they could play, and then I tried to put together what would work best for each song. Since each arrangement of these songs was made especially for this production and for these actor/musicians, my hope is that they feel fresh and exciting, because it is something that we built together in the rehearsal room from the ground up. It was very important to me to have a collaborative room, and I always asked for input on the arrangements.
Describe a scene from the piece by Dylan Thomas, the Welsh poet, that worked particularly well for you from either the artistic or musical perspective.
Aaron: There is a moment in the show where the actors are telling ghost stories. That section of the poem has a tiny story arc that we were able to connect with easily. This part works well both with the set created for the production, and the comedic strength of the actors.
Matthew: In the poem, Dylan Thomas talks a lot of hearing bells ringing on Christmas Day. So, for the arrangement of the song “Ring Out the Bells”—which is a new song written by Charlotte Moore (both music and lyrics) and arranged by Mark Hartman. I orchestrated it as I wanted to create a unique sound. It was originally written to be played just by a piano. It has the feel of an old Christmas carol that you would hear bellowing from a church bell tower. And since Thomas used such beautiful imagery of bells, I wanted to only use handbells for this song to give you the feeling of hearing church bells ringing throughout the town.
Share a moment or two from your rehearsals or performances that surprised you.
Aaron: For me, it’s a surprise from our audience. It’s a nice surprise for me when you experience an audience member familiar with Thomas’ work chime in with a line from the poem that they remember. Also, when we sing “Silent Night,” a few people always quietly join in. It is a very sweet moment for me on stage.
Matthew: This cast was a dream to work with, and I consider each of them my friends. They supported me throughout this process, and were always ready to jump in with ideas. It’s a joy to perform with them each day, and as we go we find new ways to explore the text and music. And we have created our own little Christmas family band of storytellers and singers.
Could you share with us some Christmas memories from your own childhood that might have had an impact on the way you directed this show?
Aaron: Creating the moment on stage when we light our candles just before we sing “Silent Night.” That was something I remember doing fondly at my church growing up. From my childhood memories, I also relate closely to the idea that from day-to-day, tundra could be a place to explore. Almost as if, when you’re young, the same place you were yesterday becomes an undiscovered lot to create new stories today.
Matthew: Growing up taking piano lessons and loving to sing, I would learn to play Christmas carols and make my family sing along with me at Christmastime. I still make them sing with me every year, and my brother takes out his guitar and we have our little family Christmas band. I would also write some songs and perform them for my family when I was younger.
So for the song “I Don’t Want a Lot for Christmas,” I wanted the arrangement to sound as if children wrote this song as their Christmas wish-list to sing for their parents. For this arrangement, we therefore use a lot of “toy instruments” like a ukulele, melodica, triangle, and a guiro to give it that child-like sound.
Matthew: What makes this production of A Child’s Christmas in Wales different from the original production?
Matthew: The original production of this show only used a piano for all the songs, so our production has all the same songs, but what makes it unique are the arrangements of the songs. The opening song in particular has a unique arrangement that I wrote to set up the way music and our instruments will be used throughout the evening. We open the show with “Deck the Halls,” and each instrument gives a little solo to welcome the audience in.
Aaron: Merry Christmas everyone!
Running Time: 70 minutes, with no intermission.
A Child’s Christmas in Wales plays through December 23, 2016, at Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3—825 Walnut Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 574-3550 or (800)-982-2787, or purchase them online.
A Child’s Christmas in Wales at Walnut Street Theatre reviewed by Celeste Mann on DCMetroTheaterArts.