Christmas variety: Director aims to bring out the true meaning of Christmas in off-season musical revue at Whidbey Playhouse

A children’s chorus chimes in regularly during ‘Christmas Snapshots,’ which opens at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Whidbey Playhouse in Oak Harbor. - Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times
A children’s chorus chimes in regularly during ‘Christmas Snapshots,’ which opens at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Whidbey Playhouse in Oak Harbor.
— image credit: Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times

During rehearsals for a musical revue at Whidbey Playhouse, Karina Mitchell heard a voice that made her eyes light up.

Known for her own booming voice that grabs an audience’s attention, Mitchell was taken back when she first heard Lisa Berritella sing.

“She owns a big operatic voice,” Mitchell said. “I thought, ‘Where did she come from?’ It’s always nice to discover new talent here.

“Lisa’s good.”

Mitchell and Berritella are part of a large cast that will be performing in the off-season musical revue, “Christmas Snapshots,” that begins Thursday, Dec. 12, at Whidbey Playhouse.

They are examples of a wide range of talent and experience assembled by director Sarah Russell to share music and tales that she hopes will stir up memories and remind audiences about the true spirit of Christmas.

“This is a collection of songs that I thought could represent the full Christmas season,” Russell said. “I had this dream, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to come up with songs that would lift the spirits in the holidays and share what the holiday season is supposed to be about?’ It’s about love and giving, not so much about gift buying and the commercial part.”

Russell is no stranger to the playhouse, having performed or directed in plays since she and her husband first arrived in Oak Harbor in 1979.

But it’s only been in recent years that Russell and her husband, J.R. Russell, have settled down locally since he retired from the Navy in 2010.

Now, J.R. Russell, the former commanding officer of the VAQ-133 Wizards at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, is part of the act as he performs as a magician and host in “Christmas Snapshots.”

“You look at the collection of talent that’s put together both vocally and instrumentally,” J.R. Russell said. “Then you throw in the kids. They’re the ones who win you over.”

The cast for “Christmas Snapshots” numbers about 45 on a given performance, ranging from local theater veterans to first-time performers.

The show is a mix of solo singing and guitar performances, chorus and instrumental acts, dancing, story-telling and magic all played out in front of large screens that display video images of the holiday season.

Talent ranges from a former professional opera singer in Berritella, who sang in East Coast productions, to a local children’s chorus.

For Sarah Russell, it’s all about variety and providing snapshots of Christmas.

“I like to work with all generations and guide them along in a production that gives them an opportunity to stretch and grow and entertain,” said Russell, a part-time elementary school music teacher in Oak Harbor.

The last show Russell directed at Whidbey Playhouse was the 2012 off-season musical revue, “Wish Upon a Star.” That show featured Disney music but also included a wide range of experience on stage with children and veterans.

Featured groups from that show such as the Satin Dolls, Shifty Sailors and Enchanted Flutes are back for “Christmas Snapshots,” though some on only specific dates.

“Christmas Snapshots” will only have six performances, starting Dec. 12 and wrapping up Dec. 21.

“We love it,” said Kim Breilein, director of the Enchanted Flute choir, made up of high school students and young adults from Oak Harbor and Anacortes. “We participated in the Disney show last year. It was one of the more rewarding things we’ve done. Everybody was very enthusiastic about doing it again.”

Sarah Russell’s excitement rose during auditions when she listened to performers and gained ideas and inspiration. She found that certain people had a gift for expressing certain messages, sharing how she was touched by Dann Davies’ reading of “The Gift of the Magi,” among other examples.

She was aware of Mitchell’s vocal talent. Since graduating from Oak Harbor in 2006, Mitchell has performed in a handful of musicals at Whidbey Playhouse, including “Wish Upon a Star,” and also recently joined a band that plays 1980s rock, The Mixx, that is lining up gigs in Seattle.

Mitchell sings “Do You Hear What I Hear,” “Little Drummer Boy” and “What Child is This?” in “Christmas Snapshots.”

Russell was caught off guard by Berritella, who came to Oak Harbor a year ago because of her husband’s military service.

Berritella, from Rochester, N.Y., has performed in professional productions as an opera singer on the East Coast and in Southern California.

She sings solos for “Breath of Heaven” and “O Holy Night.”

“I didn’t even know she existed in our community,” Russell said. “She walked in and blew me away.”

Allenda Jenkins, former president of the Whidbey Playhouse who sings as a part of a quartet with her husband, Jamar Jenkins and another married couple, Anjelica and Joseph Glasgow, said Russell has a knack for bringing wide ranges of talent together.

It’s all part of the message of spreading good will this holiday season and bringing the community together. The show ends with a father and daughter, Matt and Shelby Montoya, alone on stage, singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

Those sort of personal touches didn’t come by accident.

“They’re sharing their interpretation of each holiday song,” Russell said. “It’s about love and being together for whoever you are with this holiday season.”


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