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Christmas 'Birth' grows to maturity

Starving Artist returns with its narrative about one night in Bethlehem

By Lawrence Toppman
ltoppman@charlotteobserver.com

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  • WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Dec. 12, 13, 15, 16, 17 and 19; 2:30 p.m. Dec. 17; 4:30 p.m. Dec. 18.

    WHERE: Duke Energy Theatre, Spirit Square, 345 N. College St.

    TICKETS: $18. The evening show on Dec. 18 is $28 and will be followed by a concert by Sarah DeShields, performing Christmas songs and hymns classic and modern.

    DETAILS: 704-372-1000, carolinatix.org.



Among the magnificent "Messiahs" and glittering "Nutcrackers" and shivery, sugary "Christmas Carols" - God bless 'em, every one - here comes a novelty: Seven people sitting on a bare stage, dressed casually, quietly singing and dancing and speaking about the birth of Jesus Christ.

The words come from American philosopher Frederick Buechner, whose 1966 book "The Magnificent Defeat" inspired the event. The songs come mainly from the participants. The dances come from the spirit. Yet this show, burning like a small, bright candle for six seasons, has found an audience and landed a new home: Duke Energy Theatre, where it will run Dec. 12-19.

We don't hear from Joseph or the angels or God in the one-hour piece Starving Artist Productions created. The innkeeper in Bethlehem shares his thoughts in a monologue, as do a shepherd and a wise man. We don't get traditional carols, except for "Come, O Come Emmanuel"; instead, we get original music, some of it this year by Scottish singer Sarah DeShields (who has moved to Charlotte).

Though the core group of players attends Renovatus Church on Little Rock Road - they all rehearse there, though they mostly prepare on their own - this isn't a church-sponsored play.

It is, says Starving Artist founder Nathan Rouse, the work of a guy "who always had one foot in the church and one in the arts. It was never meant to get you through the church door."

It began as a four-person piece featuring Rouse, his sister Kate (the dancer and the only other person to appear all six years) and two musicians. It has grown to a cast of seven, including DeShields and veteran actor James K. Flynn. (He'll deliver "Message From the Stars," a Buechner sermon.)

One of them, Shelley Jones, joined the group and became communications manager after seeing that opening gig. "You're hearing perspectives in this show you've never heard before, and the music makes you listen with fresh ears," she says. ("Mary," a song about Jesus' mother, gives one other character a moment to express herself.)

The story may be pre-Christian, but the delivery is 21st-century. The company has a website at thebirth.net. It recorded the music, which can be had on MP3s or CDs at performances.

In previous years, costs were covered by ticket sales and Rouse and a handful of people. This year, Starving Artist posted on Kickstarter, the all-or-nothing Internet site that lets artists pitch ideas to donors. The result: $2,421 raised, 121 percent of the request.

Rouse wants the show to stay at Duke Energy, where Blumenthal Performing Arts gives "The Birth" access to better marketing (including a place on CarolinaTix) and "a well-oiled theatrical machine," as he puts it. Starving Artist partnered with Blumenthal in May on Brian Friel's "Faith Healer," and Rouse feels "we've earned our uptown spot."

The company grabbed the attention of Buechner fans last year, when it went to Bristol, Tenn., to perform at the Buechner Institute at King College. Starving Artist hopes to expand the show's reach while retaining the intimacy of the experience.

"The audience almost gets to be in the play," says Jones. "Characters are looking them in the eyes from a few feet away the whole time, and none of us ever leaves the stage. That (connection) keeps people coming back from year to year."

Actor's Theatre Of Charlotte

650 E. Stonewall St. 704-342-2251;

actorstheatrecharlotte.org.

"Chaps! A Jingle Jangle Christmas," Dec. 13-23. An American singing cowboy and his troupe are late for a holiday broadcast to England. So a frantic young producer grabs a snobby announcer, an amiable soundman and a passing soap opera actor, hands them radio scripts and shoves them in front of an unsuspecting audience.

Blumenthal Performing Arts

704-372-1000; carolinatix.org; blumenthalcenter.org.

"Live from the WVL Radio Theatre: It's a Wonderful Life," Dec. 6-18: A group of radio actors brave a blizzard to come to their small-town station and perform "It's a Wonderful Life." In Booth Playhouse, 130 N. Tryon St.

Carolina Actors Studio Theatre

2424 N. Davidson St., Suite 113. 704-455-8542; nccast.com.

"A Tuna Christmas," through Dec. 24. Radio station OKKK news personalities Thurston Wheelis and Arles Struvie report on various yuletide activities in the third smallest town in Texas, including the landing of aliens.

Children's Theatre Of Charlotte

ImaginOn, 300 E. Seventh St. 704-973-2828; ctcharlotte.org.

"Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells!," through Dec. 23. Sassy Junie B. Jones has to decide whether to embrace the spirit of Christmas or grab a treasured toy for herself.

Davidson Community Players

307 Armour St., Davidson. 704-892-7953; davidson communityplayers.org .

"Retrieving the Lamb," through Dec. 18. Judy Simpson Cook's tale is about a Christmas pageant that's jeopardized by the disappearance of the titular lamb, among other things.

Matthews Playhouse

100 McDowell St., Matthews. (704) 846-8343; www.matthews playhouse.com .

"Babes in Toyland," Dec. 9-11. The story begins in Mother Goose Village, where the town is in danger of foreclosure. Fairytale characters venture off to Toyland to seek help from the master toymaker in Victor Herbert's musical.

Narroway Productions

3327 S.C. 51, Fort Mill, S.C., 803-802-2300, 704-831-8893, narroway.net.

"The Real Christmas Story" and "A Stranger for Christmas," in repertory through Dec. 18. The former is a combination Christmas pageant and a telling of the story of Jesus' birth; the latter adapts the book by Carol Lynn Pearson about a family that takes in an old lady for the holidays.

Old Courthouse Theatre

49 Spring St. NW, Concord, 704-788-2405, oldcourthouse theatre.org .

"The Best Christmas Pageant Ever," through Dec. 18. Dickens' classic is brought to life by three actors and one piano player via song parodies, split-second costume changes and a breakneck pace.

Porch Productions

McGlohon Theatre, Spirit Square, 345 N. College St., 704-372-1000, carolinatix.org.

"Black Nativity," 4 p.m. today. Langston Hughes based his song-filled play on the Gospel of Luke and its account of the birth of Christ.

Theatre Charlotte

501 Queens Road. 704-376-3777; theatrecharlotte.org;

carolinatix.org.

"A Christmas Carol," Dec. 9-18: John Jakes adapted Charles Dickens' novel about the tightfisted British miser who learns the meaning of the holiday season.

Toppman: 704-358-5232
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