For me, storytelling has always been the purest form of theater. No elaborate sets or technical wizardry — just an actor, an audience and the magic of the spoken word.
And it’s hard to imagine a more entertaining display of this art form than “Christmas Down Home,” onstage at The Belmont Mansion through Saturday. Created by David Alford and Paul Carrol Binkley, “Christmas Down Home” honors the spirit of seasons past with a collection of heartfelt stories, humor and some marvelous arrangements of traditional holiday music.
The show’s centerpiece — Alford’s spirited rendition of Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” — has long been a favorite among local audiences. The largely autobiographical tale explores Capote’s unique childhood and his friendship with an elderly cousin named Sook.
Alford, who appears as Bucky Dawes on ABC’s “Nashville,” first presented the piece as part of “A Southern Christmas Sampler” at Mockingbird Theatre in 1995. Since then, he and Binkley — whose friendship dates back to their days at Austin Peay State University — have revamped the program and expanded the cast to include actors Kahle Alford and Erin R. Ramsey, along with musicians Brad Albin and Toni Ferguson.
Ramsey is especially good in her retelling of a disastrous Christmas pageant from T.R. Pearson’s “A Short History of a Small Place.” And Kahle Alford delivers Ogden Nash’s humorous poem “The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus" with great voice and a sly smile.
And then there’s the music. Binkley is well known for his work as a composer and arranger, and his efforts here are impressive. I especially enjoyed the bluegrass takes on familiar tunes such as “Go Tell It On The Mountain” and “Children, Go Where I Send Thee.” And there’s a wonderful dreamy quality to holiday selections, including “Wassail” and “Oh Holy Night.” Alford and Binkley are excellent on guitar, receiving ample support from Ferguson on violin and Albin on standup bass.
More than a mere backdrop, however, the beautiful music often finds its way right into the heart of the stories. Binkley’s original music is especially effective in “A Christmas Memory,” capturing the spirit of Capote’s words and enhancing the homespun humor.
But it’s really Alford’s gift as a storyteller that makes this piece so memorable. With a twinkle in his eye, he takes us back to a simpler time, carefully setting each scene and infusing each character with a unique and gentle spirit. His delivery is at once fresh and familiar, as he guides the audience through the story like an old friend.
And perhaps it’s this conversational tone that makes “Christmas Down Home” so special. A celebration of friends, family and the simple joys of the season, “Christmas Down Home” is back — and it’s better than ever.
Tennessee Repertory Theatre’s presentation of David Alford’sChristmas Down Home in more ways than one marks the return of a friend one has longed to see.
David Alford, the group’s former executive artistic director, brings along some talented collaborators as he hosts a warm, informal work of music and storytelling topped by his justly celebrated rendition of Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory.
Alford has done that piece several times over the years, adapting Capote’s largely autobiographical short story of his childhood relationship with his elderly cousin Sook into a one-man rendition. It became a staple of the A Southern Christmas Sampler programs Alford did for the now-defunct Mockingbird Public Theatre when he and Tennessee Rep producing artistic director René D. Copeland ran that troupe.
But Alford stopped doing performances of A Christmas Memory following the death of his father. For a time it seemed the piece – accompanied with beautiful original music by Alford’s longtime friend and colleague Paul Carrol Binkley – would live only in the memories of those who’d been lucky enough to see it in years past.
Alford was asked to perform it again in Springfield last year, though, and happily he did. Along with Binkley, he then expanded the offerings of the Sampler to create the current program.
Christmas Down Home is also about memories that don’t include Capote’s 1956 loving recollection of his best family friend. Alford weaves stories of his family, including his grandparents Big Daddy and Little Mama, great-grandparents Ma and Pa and Uncle Henry, into the show. Those sweet vignettes offer a welcome personal touch to the fine songs and stories that accompany them.
Alford and his stage-mates – Binkley, actors/vocalists Kahle Reardon and Erin R. Ramsey, and musicians/vocalists Brad Albin and Toni Ferguson – kick-off the proceedings with a lively country-infused take on the spiritual “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” followed by “Go Tell It On the Mountain.” The latter song, we later hear, was the first selection a young Alford publicly performed when he delivered it in high-pitched fashion to a church congregation.
Reardon, Ramsey and Alford provide their considerable acting skills to a lovely rendition of Gloria Houston’s beloved children’s book The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree. There’s a good helping of humor, too, as Ramsey relates a section of T.R. Pearson’s A Short History of a Small Place dealing with a disastrous church Christmas pageant and Reardon recites Ogden Nash’s poem The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus with Alford playing the offending youngster Jabez Dawes.
The performers offered a warm musical embrace with the aforementioned selections, a look at the history and lyrics of “Jingle Bells” and some original Binkley arrangements of yuletide classics. A particular favorite was an instrumental performance that among other inspirations included passages from the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
Alford and Binkley’s guitar play, along with Albin’s bass and Ferguson’s violin, were terrific throughout (as was the mandolin Binkley strummed from time to time). And everyone’s vocals – highlighted by a harmonic a Capella rendition of The Roches’ “Star of Wonder” – went down as well as cups of hot chocolate on a cold December night.
The second half of the show was primarily occupied with A Christmas Memory. Having seen Alford do the piece with Binkley beside him in years past I certainly expected something wonderful, but the performance exceeded even those high expectations.
Why? Alford’s considerable talent and decades of experience certainly make the piece come alive; from Buddy and Sook to Queenie and Mr. Haha Jones we see the characters vividly as he relates the story. But now I think he’s come to surrender himself so completely to A Christmas Memory that while doing it he is the story and its characters.
I’ve known Alford for years, and I realize actors draw upon their life and work to inspire interpretations of writers’ texts, but I couldn’t see any aspects of him as the tale unfolded; actors aspire to that complete transformation, but they know it’s rarely achieved. It was a real privilege to witness, and I am thankful for that remarkable gift from Alford’s hands.
Christmas Down Home indeed marks a welcome return to Nashville for A Christmas Memory and the performer who has made that piece so masterfully his own. It also showcases music and performers who both complement and expand on the enjoyment Alford brings. What a beautiful present they all give us.