If you were going to dream up a stage play for Mobile audiences, you couldn’t do much better than playwright Danielle Juzan. Her new show, “The Great Historical Christmas of 1977,” hits all the notes to ring harmonious with Azalea City denizens.
The first one is self-evident, right there in the title. Maybe owing to its wealth of history, Mobile is a place where nostalgia reigns. “Old times here are not forgotten” and all.
Perfect for the quaint environs of Mobile Theatre Guild (14 N. Lafayette St.), where the holiday musical comes to life Dec. 12 – 21. Timothy Guy serves as director.
The next crucial element is the story’s setting in the fictional hamlet of Secacah, Alabama. In the region where Mayberry, N. C. has become a local Asgard or Olympus, small-town life is more than revered. It’s waxed over, warmly revered and worshipped.
Juzan’s inspiration was based not in a visit but a recruitment convention of all places. When her husband was a young doctor, the couple visited a “residence fair” where civic representatives attempted to woo young physicians.
“The mayor of Greensboro and his wife were actually there at this booth and shaking people’s hands and saying what a lovely town they had to live in and didn’t we want to move there,” Juzan recalled. “And they were the nicest people so I have this romanticized version of this little Alabama town due to these nice people in this booth.”
Her pat answer is lovelier. “Secacah is where your heart is,” Juzan added.
The tale follows Secacah’s Peg Rutherford as she inherits “the oldest building in town” from her grandmother. Her new ownership puts her squarely in a civic war.
On one side is the town’s dedicated and determined historical society, with a local businessman on the other. Sound familiar, Mobilians?
“The developer is Discount Dave, who wants to tear it down for his growing chain of discount stores; and the town’s historical society who wants to make it into the new town museum,” Juzan said. “The ladies from the historical society keep telling her the house is 75 years old though they don’t have any papers.”
The entrepreneur has a little more flair for the times, though.
“Dave has a leisure suit and a wig. He is the disco-dancing villain,” Juzan laughed. “Dave’s theme song is this disco number called ‘All You Got to Know is How to Dance.’”
Juzan began work on the play in early 2011 with the help of the late Ivan Davidson. After more than a year of writing, she found Alan Farmer to craft the show’s 16 musical numbers.
The cast of more than 20 began musical rehearsals in October then moved into the theater when South of the Salt Line’s latest production finished. That was early November.
“It’s a full book musical, not a little quickie review or anything like that. I mean it’s not [Wagner’s] Ring Cycle. People will get in and get out. It’s Christmas and we have stuff to do!” Juzan joked.
Friday and Saturday performances start at 8 p.m. Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m.
Another attention grabber for Mobile audiences will be familiar faces on stage. Not just repeat performers, but local celebrities.
“We’ve got John Nodar, Levon Manzie, Bess Rich, Michelle Matthews of al.com, Merceria Ludgood and [MTG Secretary] Sherrick Sandy all taking turns filling the role of either Mr. or Ms. Penzwiggler from the county electrical co-op, who is there to plug in the Christmas tree,” Juzan said.
University of South Alabama Football Coach Joey Jones was originally slated to appear but his team’s trip to the Camellia Bowl superseded thespian duties.
Crafting the show was itself a trip into the past. Both wording and wardrobe took a little digging.
“I didn’t realize 1977 was so long ago. There are references I’m afraid people might not get but I put them in there to be topical,” Juzan said. “There’s a reference to the recession, to the Carter presidency, some toys and things, some pop culture stuff like people saying ‘Sit on it,’ or ‘Excuuuse me.’ Remember, Steve Martin?”
The playwright was relieved and amazed how accurate the Internet proved her memory to be. Then there was the matter of finding clothes.
“We raided the Goodwill and stuff some people still had in their closets. I found a dress from my childhood that one of the kids is wearing,” Juzan said. “Then some stuff we mail ordered and borrowed some lovely pieces from Theatre 98, which was very generous and there was stuff in the costume shop we’re using.”
In addition to historical zealotry, and the commercialization of Christmas, the show also aims at another subject Mobilians are chummy with: political corruption.
“There’s some business about what they’re going to do with a four-lane highway,” Juzan said, remaining cryptic and sly.
Tickets are $20, $15 for seniors, military and students. Call 251-433-7513 for reservations or go to mobiletheatreguild.org.