If your kids balk at attending yet another performance of The Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol, travel on down to the Valley Arts District in West Orange where Luna Stage has cooked up a heady stew of driving Latin rhythms, nifty guitar fingering and dramatic storytelling entitled Mi Casa, Tu Casa that will get the entire family into the rather untraditional holiday mood. But you'd better hurry, because the production runs for just two more weekends!
Created by Michael Aquino, Deivis Garcia and Dania Ramos, Mi Casa, Tu Casa ("My House is Your House" in English) uses two versatile storytellers, Ernio Hernandez and Paula Moscoso (right), accompanied by the five-member Casa Band, to weave folk tales and "personal" recollections of Christmases past into a delightful interactive experience. Director Jane Mandel keeps things humming along swimmingly, with nary a moment to breathe during the 90-minute performance.
From the opening number inviting the audience into "Mi Casa" (an original tune written by Aquino and Garcia) to the closing notes of the more familiar "Up on the Housetop," the seven performers tell the story of the December holidays. There are recollections of Christmas in Union City, an interactive reading with the kids in the audience of Clement Moore's chestnut, "A Visit from St. Nicholas" ("T'was the Night Before Christmas"), a rousing version of "Oh, Chanukah" and a beautiful rendition of a familiar Spanish song, "Cielito Lindo" ("Beautiful Sky"). Moscosco and Hernandez re-enact the stories of Parajo de Colores (Song Bird of Beautiful Colors), the Alligator who is swindled out of his drum by a Dog (played by an adorable yet very wily Chris Blanco), and Martina and the Musician (based on the traditional folktale, "The Vain Little Mouse"). With her dimples and broad smile, Moscosco is a perfect vain bird and supercilious cucaracha (cockroach); with his lithe, lean body and expressive face, Hernandez is perfect as the envious, gullible alligator and the various suitors of the cockroach: a cat, a preening rooster, a hissing snake and a mouse. (Above right: Michael Aquino, Deivis Garcia, Ernio Hernandez, Paula Moscoso, Jane Keitel and Chris Blanco)
The script mixes English and Spanish words, many of which fans of Dora the Explorer probably know, others that are translated or can be figured out quite easily. Turning the tale of the Cucaracha and her suitors into a telenovela is inspired and very funny, and Deivis Garcia's classical guitar virtuosity provides apt accompaniment to the episode.
Lest you think the title signals a total Latino slant on the holidays alone, the tales address universal concerns: the use and abuse of power, the detrimental effects of envy and the value of friendship. Memories of a German Christmas, an English Christmas or Chanukah remind us that we are more alike than different. Singing "Silent Night" or "Noche de Paz" together fosters a real sense of community in the little black box theater, regardless of your religion or ethnicity.
The facade of Casa Luna, against which the events unfold, features pictures of people and animals painted by students of Arts Unbound, a group of artists (in this case, children) living with disabilities. The jewel-like colors add to the festive atmosphere. The Casa Band, made up of Michael Aquino (electric guitar), Chris Blanco (drums), Deivis Garcia (classical guitar), Cindi Merklee (electric guitar) and Jane Keitel (accordion and glockenspiel), is as eclectic as the memories and music. They really rock the rafters! (Above: Seated in front: Cindi Merklee. Behind: Chris Blanco, Michael Aquino, Deivis Garcia and Jane Keitel)
Once again, Luna Stage has given the community a beautifully wrapped gift that, when opened, holds untold riches. Bring the entire family for a different kind of holiday celebration. Their house is your house, regardless of your background. We are all famiglia—now and all year! (By the way, notice the use of the more intimate, informal tu instead of su. The title signals our closeness even before the play starts!)
Mi Casa, Tu Casa will be performed through December 18, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM; Saturdays and Sundays at 3 PM. Luna Stage is located at 555 Valley Road, West Orange. For information and tickets, call 973.395.5551 or visit www.lunastage.org.
Photos by Steve Lawler.