Thursday, September 16, 2010

It's Cold In Them Thar Hills

Cold weather can have a chilling effect on people's lives. One doesn't have to share the Donner Party's experience with cannibalism to know that when it starts to snow in the mountains, it's time to seek shelter. Ski lodges profit handsomely when there's snow on the ground, but for dramatists the pickings are often a bit lean. K2 (a play by Patrick Meyers) had a brief run on Broadway in 1983 and was subsequently adapted into a film in 1991. David Belasco's play, The Girl of the Golden West was transformed into an opera in 1910 by Giacomo Puccini.

While films have been made about rescue operations focused on injured skiers, lost hikers, and explorers like Ernest Shackleton (whose ship was trapped in polar ice), one doesn't normally associate snow drifts with family comedies. Numerous films have been made about people battling bad weather as they try to make it home for Christmas, but few have the perspective of Christmas in the Clouds, a 2001 film being re-released on DVD this fall.

Poster art for Christmas in the Clouds
Set in a ski resort owned and operated by Native Americans, Christmas in the Clouds is essentially a romantic comedy about mistaken identities. Written and directed by Kate Montgomery, Christmas in the Clouds boasts the distinction of being the first romantic comedy whose principals were almost all American Indians. The protagonists include:
  • Joe Clouds on Fire (Sam Vlahos), a widower who has struck up a romantic correspondence with an Indian  woman back East. Joe's old truck is a lost cause and he is hoping to win the Christmas raffle for a brand new, bright red SUV.
  • Ray Clouds on Fire (Timothy Vahle), Joe's son, is a handsome young man who is trying to manage the ski resort. He has been struggling to get the resort written up in an influential travel magazine.
  • Earl (Graham Greene, who is an Oneida), the resort's chef. A vegetarian, Earl doesn't hesitate to inform guests who compliment him on their turkey dinner (and ask how the bird was raised) that the turkey they're eating used to be someone's pet.
  • Mary (Sheila Tousey, who is part Menominee and part Stockbridge-Munsee), the front desk manager of the resort who has desperately been trying to figure out which guest is the travel writer who will  review the resort. Mary has a hobby of reading torrid romance novels featuring bare-chested Fabio-like Native American studs on their covers.
  • Phil (Jonathan Joss), the lodge's maintenance man, loves to tease Mary about her romance novels. Phil often imagines himself as a Native American Romeo.
  • Tina Littlehawk (Mariana Tosca), a young widow living in New York City. Although she is part Mohawk, Tina easily passes as Italian by using her father's name. Assuming that she is the mystery travel writer, Ray Clouds on Fire goes to extreme lengths to get a good review.
  • Ramona (Rita Coolidge, who is part Cherokee), Tina's mother. Ramona likes to interpret every other word out of her daughter's mouth as an omen.
  • M. Emmet Walsh (Stu O'Malley), the only alcoholic character in the film is a grumpy old white man who has become estranged from his children and grandchildren.
  • Mabel (Rosalind Ayres), a British tourist who hopes to learn a few words in an Indian language. She takes a liking to a young Indian girl whose pet mouse has gone missing. Mabel is genuinely touched when she hears a group of Indian children singing traditional Christmas carols that have been translated into their native language.
  • Bingo MC (Patrick Shining Elk, an Eastern Shoshone of Wyoming), the man officiating at the annual Christmas bingo game and raffle.
Perhaps the strongest asset of this film is its gentility of spirit. The meanest character is an old curmudgeon. There is also some beautiful footage of mountainous Utah landscapes covered in snow.

If, between this year's election results and the pressures of the holidays, you need a low impact romantic comedy to get you through the night, Christmas in the Clouds is a welcome alternative to Charles Dickens' tale of Ebeneezer Scrooge. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * *
The bitter cold that surrounds Christmas in the Clouds started to make itself known in the nippy night air that enveloped the audience during the closing performance of the season at Woodminster Summer Musicals. Set in a mining camp in California's gold rush country, Paint Your Wagon is a 1951 musical by Lerner & Loewe that became famous for two songs: "I Talk To The Trees" and "They Call The Wind Maria."

Less well known than Lerner & Loewe's bigger hits -- 1947's Brigadoon, 1956's My Fair Lady, 1958's Gigi, and 1960's Camelot -- Paint Your Wagon has a fairly weak book whose anti-Mexican sentiments are countered by some buffoonery about Mormon men with multiple wives.

Julio Valveras (Anthony Bernal) and Jennifer Rumson (Amy Nielson)
in Paint Your Wagon (Photo by: Kathy Kahn)
Woodminster's cast featured Kelly Houston as Ben Rumson (the founder of a small mining town), Amy Nielson as his daughter Jennifer (the only female within miles), and Dwight Mahabir  as Steve Bullnack (the miner who gets to sing "They Call The Wind Maria"). Anthony Bernal appeared as Julio Valveras, the illiterate Mexican who captures Jennifer's heart and assures her that, since neither of them can read "I am an idiot, just like you!"

Dwight Mahabir as Steve Bullnack (Photo by: Kathy Kahn)
Strong support came from Michael Cassidy as Jake Whippany (the owner of the town saloon), Stephanie Rhoads as Cherry Jourdel (his girlfriend and dance-hall mistress), and Bill Fahrner as Jacob Woodling (an itinerant Mormon). Jennifer Stark and Susan Himes-Powers added comic relief as Woodling's two bickering wives.

Jennifer Stark, Bill Fahrner and Susan Himes-Powers (Photo by: Kathy Kahn)
My guess is that part of the appeal of the original production was Agnes de Mille's choreography (she had worked with Lerner and Loewe on Brigadoon). Although Jody Jaron's choreography and Joel Schlader's stage direction for Woodminster's production tried to inject life into Paint Your Wagon, there's no escaping the fact that this is a fairly mediocre musical. Thankfully, under Richard Vitterli's baton, the musical preparation was as solid as ever.

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