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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Re-visiting ‘A Frank’s Christmas’

A snowy, ice-drizzly night forces a change of plans.

GREEN BAY, Wis., (WFRV) – The Wisconsin State Patrol advised people to avoid traveling on I-43 Friday night because of poor conditions, so I changed my review plans and did something I’ve rarely done – return to a long-running show.

A white-knuckle trip to Manitowoc to see the Jean Wolfmeyer Dance Company’s “The Nutcracker” at the Capitol Civic Center became a shorter, less-testy trip to the Meyer Theatre in downtown Green Bay to see Let Me Be Frank Productions’ “A Frank’s Christmas at Prange’s.”

I’d seen the Frank’s show almost a month ago. My wife hadn’t seen the show, so we decided to take it in – providing fodder for a column on comparisons and to answer a question: Do long-running live productions change?

(More importantly, my question for the night was: How in the world can there be freezing drizzle when the temperature is 23? That’s what was happening outside).

Frank’s show of Friday night was much the same as the one I saw Nov. 23. One major change was the audience Friday night was three times as large, pretty well filling the theater. Perhaps the larger crowd changed the dynamic for the performers, but for me as an audience member, the experience was much the same.

What follows here is a repeat of the review, with added comments in this type face.

In black and white, the song list (below) for “A Frank’s Christmas at Prange’s” tells only a little of what Let Me Be Frank Productions generates on the stage of the Meyer Theatre in downtown Green Bay.

It’s the 14th year for “A Frank’s Christmas.” Shows continue through Dec. 28, with some performances held on the road. Info is at www.letmebefranks.com.

Here’s the show’s skeleton:

Song list

“Silver Bells,” Company

“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” Paul Evansen

“What Child is This?” Kasey Corrado

“Do You See What I See?” Lisa Borley

“It’s Christmas Time,” Frank Hermans

“Jingle Bell Rock,” Tom Verbrick

“Santa Baby,” Kasey Corrado

“I Want You for Christmas,” Pat Hibbard

“How Great Thou Art,” Frank Hermans (This still gets one of the biggest reactions in the performance.)

“We Wish You the Merriest,” Ben Cahall, Paul Evansen

Holiday instrumental featuring ballet dancers Hailey Lestrud and Kristen Brockman and the band: Dennis Panneck, guitar; Tony Pilz, keyboard; Adam Cain, drums; Pat Hibbard, bass

“O Holy Night,” Ben Cahall (Cahall’s voice seemed more enhanced through an echo effect, allowing him for a bigger close. The song received cheers Friday night).

“I Saw Mama Kissing Santa Claus,” Lisa Borley

“The Little Drummer Boy,” Pat Hibbard

“Deck the Halls,” Company

“My Grown Up Christmas List,” Lisa Borley (The volume was “hot” Friday night, somewhat distorting her natural luster).

“On a Snowy Christmas Night,” Frank Hermans

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” Kasey Corrado

“A Holly Jolly Christmas,” Paul Evansen and Company

If that were the lineup for a concert, it would be an okay concert – mostly songs people know and expect.

Frank’s juices everything up.

Songs seldom are stock versions. For instance, Lisa Borley jazzes up “I Saw Mama Kissing Santa Claus.” For “How Great Thou Art,” Hermans puts on his Elvis Presley voice – big and strong, and what people like to hear from him. (Indeed, on Friday night this song was where the crowd finally relaxed into enjoying the show.) Most songs come with some form of dancing, or little scenes of action separate from the singer.

AND everybody is costumed, with everybody playing an individual character. Most of the performers play figurines from historic Christmas window displays* from H.C. Prange in downtown Green Bay. Some are in brilliant red-and-green elf costumes, some are helpers dressed in candy-stripe outfits. Santa (Tom Verbrick) is there. Frank Hermans plays Jack Frost, not the mythical frosty/icy guy but a widowed character from Ireland who is the creator/caretaker of the window displays and their figurines. (It’s one of Hermans’ better characters, comical yet sensitive at the same time).

NEW AND ORIGINAL to this production are two ballerina characters. Dressed in festive tutus, Hailey Lestrud and Kristen Brockman are front and center through much of the show. Mostly, they’re there to look at, kind of like music box dancers. But they do have a big ballet dance number and add bits of backup singing and movement and finally speak, with one adding to the comedy. (It’s a terrific concept to have ballet dancers as part of the show. Unique).

When Jack Frost/Hermans is not around, the figurines talk and goof around among themselves. Each is an individual character. All want to be alive some time, through a miracle. Around this story, out come the songs, and all together it’s a more than likable event (4½ stars out of 5) that’s in keeping with the popularity of this production every year.

Hermans, as usual, is comically dangerous on stage. Saturday night, he veered from the set course of the show several times with spur-of-the-moment kidding around, and sometimes cast members ran with a joke. That gives the show a spontaneous feel. (It’s hard to tell where spur-of-the-moment jokes start and where scripted ones leave off. Some of the “spontaneous” jokes from Nov. 23 are still in the show. Other lines are different from then, as a Hermans reference to something from the Nelson Mandela tribute and a Cahall line about the waiting game for Aaron Rodgers. There was kidding around between Hermans and the cast again on Friday night that seemed fresh).

Individual singing is solid along the way, with Lisa Borley at times sensational in the dynamic color of her voice.

Jokes big and small are liberally sprinkled. Big: Jack Frost/Hermans’ response to what his Christmas wish is, which won’t be repeated here and spoil its effect. (One month later, the joke still has bang). Little: Kasey Corrado’s brain-wave connection to the word “pie,” which to her is a word that’s pronounced the same but is spelled differently – and not many people get the mathematical joke (making it all the more fun for people who do get it; it’s a cosmic thing in keeping with her character). (Approximately the same small percentage of the audience got the joke, and I was glad to see it was kept in the show).

The show has reverent moments and cute moments, single-focus scenes (Ben Cahall’s “O Holy Night”) and lots of 3-D production sequences with layered singing and much motion from bodies, sound and lights. This is not a little deal at all. Much fun.

*- Neville Public Museum in Green Bay on Friday, Nov. 29, starts “Holiday Memories: Prange’s Christmas Windows.” More on the exhibit and tie-in events are at www.nevillepublicmuseum.org. Frank’s show is a fictional spinoff from the windows story. In the refreshment area lobby of the Meyer Theatre are historic photos from various Prange stores and window displays. One photo dates to 1909. Take a look-see.

LONG DISTANCE: It’s always interesting to find out where people are from who come to shows when Frank Hermans asks during introductions. At Saturday’s show, one woman was from San Antonio, Texas. (At Friday’s show, one person was from Seattle, Washington. Somebody was from Florida. Another person was from New Jersey. Closer in, people came from Marinette, Cecil, Appleton and Manitowoc, among other places).

Overall, the show of Saturday, Nov. 23, was essentially the same as the one of Friday, Dec. 20. For some songs, the crowd reaction was better on Nov. 23. For some, the crowd reaction was bigger on Dec. 20. Songs were not added, dropped or changed from the original set list.

Peeling everything back, Frank’s is an attraction that draws a lot of people to Green Bay, some of whom were more willing than I to brave bad roads on Friday.

THE VENUE: The Robert T. Meyer Theatre opened Feb. 27, 2002. It seats approximately 1,000. The building opened Feb. 14, 1930, as one of the palatial Fox movie houses. The theater’s interior aura was its saving grace toward the end of the 20th century, when the building was faced an uncertain fate. The architectural/decorative style is defined as Spanish Atmospheric. The auditorium is designed in the manner of a Moorish courtyard of old. The eclectic mix of architectural styles and colors carries throughout the lobbies. One of the Meyer Theatre’s remaining architectural cousins around the country is the Stefanie H. Weill Center for the Performing Arts in Sheboygan.

THE PEOPLE: Robert Meyer was president and chief executive officer of Tape Inc. of Green Bay. The theater took his name at the behest of his wife, Betty (Janet Elizabeth) Rose Meyer, whose financial contribution at a crucial time helped revitalize the building. The Rose family has a history of deep commitment to and involvement in the well being of Green Bay. Robert Meyer died in 1984, Betty Rose Meyer in 2008.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV at 6:45 p.m. Thursdays and every other Sunday between 6 and 8 a.m. (usually around 7:45 a.m.)

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