Aurora’s ‘Christmas Canteen’ brings holiday cheer variety to Lawrenceville

With “Christmas Canteen,” Aurora Theatre’s annual holiday musical showcase onstage through Dec. 23, the Lawrenceville-based troupe hauls out the holly and raises spirits in a big way for its community.

Now in its 27th year, organizers said the USO-style variety program is a Christmas card for its audience, featuring a cast of faces familiar to the theater, songs highlighting a variety of holiday traditions and fan-favorite moments that return every year to the ever-changing show.

Credit: Casey Gardner Ford

Credit: Casey Gardner Ford

“We just want it to really be two hours of straight joy and fun where everyone leaves feeling like they’ve gotten a great burst of Christmas energy,” said show director Katie Erin Chambers. “It’s truly just about giving our community a great way to celebrate the holidays with their family and friends.”

“Canteen” is as much a holiday tradition for the people onstage and behind the scenes at the Aurora as it is for returning audiences. Artistic Director Ann-Carol Pence serves as the musical director for the show, and she is onstage at every performance playing keyboards with the band and singing a solo.

The cast, led by hosts Galen Crawley and Russell Alexander II, perform in the family-friendly show as themselves, bringing their own favorite holiday songs to the stage. Crawley appeared this fall as the title character in “Mary Poppins” at Aurora. This is her third year in “Christmas Canteen.”

“We definitely use talent that are Aurora favorites,” Chambers said. “You’ll often see people in ‘Canteen’ that you have seen in our other shows. But some of the cast is new. We’ve got a couple great cast members this year who are doing this as their first show. It’s a mix of old favorites and new friends.”

Credit: Casey Gardner Ford

Credit: Casey Gardner Ford

Crawley said “Canteen” is particularly special since she was raised in the area.

“I grew up in Snellville,” she said. “My middle school was in Lawrenceville. A lot of my friends lived here. So when I’m doing this show, I’m very literally home for the holidays. And every teacher I had in elementary school through high school, if they still live in the area, has come to see ‘Canteen.’ It’s just so amazing.”

Chambers, now the director of production at Aurora, has been involved with productions of “Canteen” since 2014, though this is her first year directing the show. She previously served as the show’s stage manager, and she has a fondness for the tradition.

“It’s all of us trying to do what we do best and in the most joyful way,” Chambers said. “It’s a very in-house production. A lot of our creative team are — like myself — staff members, internal team members from Aurora or people we work with a lot.”

Her longtime involvement with the show meant that she could bring back favorite sketches and songs from previous years’ productions, including a re-enactment of a silent Red Skelton skit she remembered from 2015.

“There are some moments of the show that we do every year,” Chambers said. “Because it started based on a USO show with a military tribute, there is still a USO section in the show every year. We do an Andrews Sisters medley. We always pay tribute to service members who won’t be home for the holidays. As other sections of the show swap out and change, that one always stays in as tradition.”

Credit: Casey Gardner Ford

Credit: Casey Gardner Ford

Emphasizing the talents and personalities of its cast every year, “Canteen” changes to celebrate their unique strengths. The castmates are uniformly strong performers, with Crawley, Alexander, James Allen McCune, Isa Martinez and Juan Carlos Unzueta providing very strong vocal performances.

Unzueta, recently onstage in Atlanta Lyric Theatre’s “Guys and Dolls,” delivers showstopping vocals to the show when performing “Mary, Did You Know?” and “The Prayer.”

Choreographer Kari Twyman designed the dances this year, and she’s also in the show, singing and performing. Cole Ferguson provides excellent comic relief.

“We definitely cater the show to the talent we have each year because it’s created fresh and new every year,” Chambers said. “We’re able to pick the song list and create the jokes based upon the cast, their personalities and relationships. They’re playing themselves, just the most Christmasy and delightful versions of themselves.”

This year’s script, developed by Shelli Delgado, centers the show around the cast’s Secret Santa gift exchange, a real tradition that the cast has conducted backstage for years. This allows for surprising interludes in the show, including an entire section featuring tropical outfits and a trip to the beach. At other points, there are Motown tributes and disco dancing.

“All of those moments are about bringing the authenticity of who our cast members are into the show,” Chambers said. “They’re not performing some cookie-cutter version of what Christmas is. They’re honestly celebrating the holiday season as they experience it.”

Crawley said her favorite moment of “Canteen” comes when she sings “Hanukkah Blessings,” originally written by Barenaked Ladies. Pence brought it to her as a solo during her first year in the cast, and Crawley said the song still makes her cry.

“It means so much to me to do it in Lawrenceville,” she said. “When I was a kid, I did not grow up around other Jewish kids or a big Jewish community. It’s really wonderful that I get to share myself and my traditions with my hometown. Especially this year, with everything going on in the news, it matters so much to me to be joyfully and unapologetically Jewish onstage.”

Crawley said performing in “Canteen” is her favorite part of the holiday season.

“What I love about doing this show is that everyone in the cast is just being ourselves,” she said. “We really get the chance to make it our own. I love Christmas music and love Christmastime, and I love that this show is just an opportunity to be a big old goofball with a bunch of other really incredible singers. We share some amazing music. It’s a ton of fun.”

THEATER PREVIEW

“Christmas Canteen”

Through Dec. 23. $30-$80. Aurora Theatre, Lawrenceville Arts Center, 128 E. Pike St., Lawrenceville. 678-226-6222, auroratheatre.com.


Credit: ArtsATL

Credit: ArtsATL

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