If 12 days of Christmas sounds like a lot, how about two-and-a-half months? That's how long the 73-member Traditions of Christmas cast will have been in rehearsals to learn the more than 40 songs and numerous dance numbers in this monumental production opening Friday with 14 scenes that range from a "Salute to the Military" to a live nativity.
For producer Laura Little, whose company has staged Traditions in Coeur d'Alene for the past six years, Christmas comes early — in February they send "thank yous" to prior sponsors and begin organizing the audition process, rehearsal times and places, props, costumes, and looking for new elements for the next December's show.
"This year there is a pretty sweet banjo number that I think everyone will appreciate," says returning cast member Gracie Dibble, who started in the kickline (think Radio City Music Hall Rockettes) six years ago. After a break to attend nursing college, she returned as one of four actresses cast as half a Christmas couple.
"We are always looking for new songs and skits," says Little, who adapted Traditions from Christian Youth Theater (CYT) co-founder Paul Russel's original play, which CYT performed in San Diego until recently. "Last year I commissioned someone to write an original song for the show — all about Christmas in the Northwest." Another change is the elimination of barn animals in the culminating nativity scene, says Little, who also stages the production in southern Idaho.
"Last year in Nampa the donkey kicked the sled and it fell apart," she says. "Most of our issues with the farm animals were from their dropping while on stage."
This year the only four-footed cast member will be Brandy, a golden retriever supplied by adult chorus singer, Ed Bejarana. The rest of the cast is 26 school-aged children — audition calls go out during the school year prior to each new year's production — and 47 adults who must demonstrate stage presence, singing and dancing during the audition.
"It was kind of intimidating," says Jeremiah Schreindl, an engineer by day who auditioned at the encouragement of his wife, Elianne Schreindl (she is one of four actresses in the Christmas couple scenes, such as "Winter Wonderland" and the "USO Christmas").
The audition started with singing, both alone and with two other hopefuls, following cues given by music director Beth Taylor and director Rick Taylor. Next it was off to a dance audition where Heidy Cartwright, one of three choreographers, led the would-be cast members through a couples dance routine, as Little, Taylor and others entered and exited the room, nodding, appraising and ultimately deciding Schreindl was in.
And, boy, was he in: He'll perform in the adult chorus, as Joseph (to Brenna Coppess' Mary), as Saint Mikulás (Hungary's version of the jolly ol' fella) during "Christmas Around the World," and as one of the grandmas singing "Grandma Got Ran Over by a Reindeer." For that role, says a laughing Schreindl, he'll be in a wig and pink robe, but drew the line at makeup.
Costuming is a huge part of the production, explains Little, who uses a combination of purchased items along with custom-made and donated pieces, including many of the military uniforms. Fittings take place over several days in late fall out of two two-story storage units crammed with clothes: costumes for Santas representing Ireland and Africa, for elves and toy soldiers of all sizes, kids' footie-pajamas, fur-trimmed numbers for the kickline dancers, and singers in Charles Dickens-era attire. Then there are the accessories — hats, boots, gloves, belts — and props from giant wrapped "gifts" to stuffed animals to set pieces.
Navigating the numerous set and costume changes — 400 costumes for 73 performers — is a challenge, which makes returning cast members all the more vital.
"Having been in the (basically) same production multiple times and having worked backstage, knowing how to prepare your costumes is golden," says Kevin Walker, who has been with Traditions since 2013 but hadn't otherwise been on stage since college.
This year, Walker is the USO emcee, plays Father Christmas and is in the adult chorus. He isn't the only Walker on the playbill, however; his daughter Jordynn started performing in Traditions at age 4. This year she's in the kids' group in various scenes, and will also be one of 11 adorable elves.
"I was so impressed with how well [Traditions] was put together and the overall message," says Walker, "that I knew it was the platform I wanted to use to introduce my young daughter to theater and musicals."
Walker's stepson Dylon currently works the stage crew, and his wife Jen helps wherever needed, like wrangling kids during rehearsals and taking care of family stuff while he is busy with the play. His wife's employer is also a sponsor, says Walker.
"It is a whole family affair," says Walker.
Nearly 40 percent of the cast are returning performers, says Little, and many are longtime fans. Wendy Inman and her family have attended Traditions of Christmas since it debuted six years ago.
"It has become our own special tradition," says Inman, who this year will have a very different view of the lively holiday musical.
First, she was a stage mom, when her youngest daughter Billie, followed by her older daughter Jasmin, were cast in the play. Then she was a stage wife when husband Bill auditioned and scored a few parts. Then, Inman took the plunge herself.
"I honestly could not imagine sitting in the audience, alone, watching my entire family performing in the production we all loved and enjoyed each Christmas." To her surprise and delight, Inman — who has a dance background and has done some acting — was cast in the adult chorus.
"Now we are all a part of this together and it is truly a blessing to be able to spend time with my family." ♦
Traditions of Christmas • Dec. 7-23; Fri-Sat at 7 pm, Sat and Sun at 3 pm, Thu, Dec. 20 at 7 pm • $34/$27 seniors and military/$21 children 12 and under • Kroc Center • 1765 W. Golf Course Rd., Coeur d'Alene • traditionsofchristmasnw.com • 208-763-0681