Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Big Dawg spins over 20 holiday classics into a satirical Christmas romp at Thalian Hall

Randy Davis, Steve Vernon and Josh Bailey will perform in Big Dawg’s holiday show, “Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!).” (Photo by James Bowling)

WILMINGTON — Artistic director Steve Vernon has never performed in Charles Dickens’ quintessential holiday classic, “The Christmas Carol.” Yet, he has managed to play Scrooge at least eight times.

So how does that happen, exactly? 

“I’ve been in four productions of a show called ‘Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol’ — a retelling of the familiar story from Marley’s perspective — which we usually do every other year,” he wrote to Port City Daily.

The “we” Vernon refers to is Big Dawg Productions, for which he has served as artistic director for more than a decade. Each holiday season over the last nine years, the company rotates between putting on “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol” and “Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!).” Vernon and his recent round of castmates, Randy Davis and Josh Bailey, will open “Every Christmas Story” Thursday night at Thalian Hall’s Ruth and Bucky Stein Theater.

It will be Vernon’s fourth time doing the production, wherein he plays — well, himself. In fact, all the castmates are their real-life personas who then put on various hats — literally, there are more costume changes and props than bells on Santa’s sleigh — and bring to life familiar characters across the ages.

“Somehow, contrary to my usual sunny disposition, I am relegated to the Scrooge/Grinch archetypes,” Vernon wrote. “I’m the kind of guy who tries to argue with your kid about why Santa isn’t real. Of course, I am proven wrong.”

He and his castmates fill multiple roles: Santa, Rudolph, Linus, the Ghost of Christmas Past, a Who down in Whoville and Frosty, among others.

“That’s how the original authors designed the play, and it is a lot of fun to follow that route,” Vernon explained.

Big Dawg director Steve Vernon has performed in”Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!)” multiple times throughout the years. (Photo by James Bowling)

Written by Michael Carleton, James FitzGerald, and John K. Alvarez, the plot starts off with a theater cast preparing to launch “A Christmas Carol” “for the umpteenth time.” One of the members decides to go rogue and instead polls the audience to find out their favorite holiday tales. 

Then the madcap fun begins, as the cast works through seasonal tropes and ancient icons worldwide, singing carols and throwing in references to pop culture to string together a satirical, improvisational evening of every Christmas story ever told.

“Obviously, the show is scripted, but there is an immense amount of freedom,” Vernon said. “We ask the audience to dictate the show to a degree by getting suggestions as to what stories to tell, but we already know the major stories that will be given.”

It covers around 20, including standards from Charles Dickens, Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass, O. Henry and Frank Capra. Yet, it also highlights unexpected twists.

“You might catch a ‘Die Hard’ quote in the middle of the Rudolph scene, for example,” Vernon explained.

The trifecta of Big Dawg actors have been rehearsing with excited expectation of all the unscripted moments, which guide the magic and hilarity of the play. 

“It’s the type of show where a random mistake, missed line, or accidental costume change looks like part of the show,” Bailey revealed. 

Bailey’s character is a bit overzealous, ready to show off all his bits of knowledge and Christmas trivia, the actor said. It’s his first time performing “Every Christmas Story,” one in which he praises the guidance of “excellent improv masters like Randy and Steve.”

Randy Davis as Jacob Marley in “Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!).” (Photo by James Bowling)

Vernon, who oversaw BUMP Productions before coming to Big Dawg, helped found The Comically Impaired, an improv troupe that launched in the early ‘90s. Weekly, he and a dozen or so others would put up shows weekly at downtown’s once popular basement bar Bessie’s (last known as Orton’s Billiards). They launched a 25-year anniversary performance in 2019, with Davis joining the cast. 

It’s Davis’ fifth time performing “Every Christmas Story.” “Something I love about this show is the topical references that we change — sometimes even nightly,” he said, “which in turn causes the others to have to adapt what they’re saying.”

It never allows the production to run on autopilot or remain idle.

​​”There is a moment or two that tugs on the traditional elements of the season, but it’s an equal-opportunity entertainer,” Vernon said. “After the last two years, we could all use a laugh, and that’s what the show is really about: laughter, silliness and a shared joyful experience without getting heavy.”

David Kent directs “Every Christmas Story” each time Big Dawg produces it.

“The hardest part of directing a show that I am so familiar with is maintaining the spirit of the piece while still searching for ways to make it fresh for modern audiences,” he said. 

“We strive every time to not rest on our laurels,” Davis added.

It’s local actor Josh Bailey’s first time performing in “Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!).” (Photo by James Bowling)

The holiday show is Big Dawg’s fourth play of 2021, each hosted in Thalian Hall’s upstairs theater. The theater company started in 1995 and has been headquartered at Cape Fear Playhouse on Castle Street since 2009. Once the pandemic shut down the world, and shows weren’t being produced in-person, the company did a few audio plays, yet it couldn’t continue paying rent and utilities for a vacant space, Vernon confirmed.

“We are sad that we’ve had to relinquish any plans to produce at our former venue. Even with help from donations and grants, and having a landlord that was willing to do what they could, it just wasn’t viable to keep a space that usually costs in excess of $3,000 a month to maintain,” he said.

Big Dawg is assessing how to move forward as it continues to recover and keep theater alive for Wilmington audiences. Being in Thalian, Vernon said, has its upsides, such as drawing in new audiences who frequent the historic theater, who may have been unaware of Big Dawg’s former location. 

“It also provid[es] our past audiences a wonderful space to visit us in,” Vernon said. “The most important thing for us is to be able to produce shows again and to be able to entertain audiences again in a safe and comfortable environment. We think that Big Dawg is more about a spirit than a street address.”

The theater company will be announcing its first half of its 2022 season at “Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!).” The new season is funded by ongoing donations, ticket sales, as well as American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) grants allocated to arts organizations from the City of Wilmington and the Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County last month. Big Dawg received $10,000.

“We’ll take a breath after this show and plot a course toward using the ARPA funds to serve our audience and our community in the best ways that we can,” Vernon said. 

“Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!)” will run Dec. 9-12 and 16-19, at 7:30 p.m., except for Sunday matinees, held at 3 p.m. Tickets are $25.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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