Former Local Star Returns with The Santaland Diaries to HMT
Our Theater Critic, Valerie Lord, welcomes an old Saratoga hand back home and finds out what Jonathan Whitton has been up to.
In preparation for his upcoming appearance in David Sedaris' The Santaland Diaries at Home Made Theater (HMT) December 13-16, Skidmore graduate and former Saratogian Jonathan Whitton recently shared what it's like to revisit the play and what he's been up to since moving to New York City.
For the uninitiated, The Santaland Diaries is a "real-ish" memoir of essayist David Sedaris' stint as one of Santa's elves at the Herald Square Macy's during one holiday season. He first read the essay on NPR's Morning Edition in 1992. A longer version aired in 1996 on PRI’s "This American Life" almost simultaneously with the stage adaptation adapted by Joe Mantello for the Atlantic Theater Company. It has become a staple of the airwaves and regional stages ever since.
To be clear, "Crumpet" the elf in the Sedaris piece is grumpy, unlike the upbeat, energetic Whitton.
Whitton graduated from Skidmore Magna Cum Laude in 2002 with a BS in Theatre, winning the Margaret Ellen Clifford Memorial Prize in Theatre. While there, he directed the US collegiate premieres of The Laramie Project, Hello Again and Phaedra’s Love and appeared in several productions, including A New Brain, Three Sisters and The Merchant of Venice among others.
Immediately after graduation, Whitton was hired by HMT to direct the musical whodunit Something’s Afoot and went on to direct A Man of No Importance, Into the Woods, Jr. and Urinetown. He also appeared as the Emcee in Cabaret and played starring roles in Picasso at the Lapin Agile and The Santaland Diaries in '05 and '08. Since moving to New York, Whitton has become a darling of the cabaret scene, winning both the MAC and Backstage Bistro awards as well as starring in The Disneyland Diaries (directed by Tony winner Michelle Pawk) and Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
SaratogaWire (SW) Your past productions of The Santaland Diaries at HMT are still well-remembered. Will we see the same production this time and if not, what new things did you uncover? You have a new director, correct?
Jonathan Whitton (JW) I am so excited about this new, re-imagined production! All of the text is being recited by holograms while I fly around the theatre singing Philip Glass tunes. There will also be 15 foot tall-shadow puppets. And explosions. Lots of explosions. So bring earplugs. And post-show, as a special holiday gift, I'm giving a feral cat to every audience member. It's amazing what you can do with a $1.5 million budget for a one man show!
But seriously, this is my third go-around in the elf suit and each time brings new discoveries (first in 2005 and again in 2008). So while the "design" of the show is pretty much the same, I think there will definitely be a deepened characterization. Adam Fitzgerald is a gem of a director and we are really taking time to re-examine the "heart" of the piece and Sedaris' motivations for taking this ridiculous job.
There is a lot to be mined when looking at what people do as a total last resort to pay the rent. We are focusing on finding the humor in that amazing desperation that leads to hysterical bitterness. I've also found it's a lot easier to connect to Sedaris' text as we rediscover who he is sharing this story with. HMT is a large space to fill with Santaland, so we've worked hard and are excited to bring it even further "downstage." Given that we've all changed a lot since 2005, personal experience will have seeped into the work as well. Since it is the third presentation, there will also be more sequins!
SW Has your career path gone the way you expected? If not, what were some of the unexpected turns?
JW I'm lucky. I'm constantly working and doing what I love, whether it is singing new musical theatre in concert, working on workshops of new shows, doing readings... some of those projects keep coming around and some are DOA. You take the bad with the good. I don't have any complaints.
SW Aside from HMT's The Santaland Diaries, can you tell us something about other current and upcoming projects? I believe you recently performed your show The Free Residency with Aaron Jones at Don't Tell Mama's and appeared in Razia’s Shadow at Joe's Pub (NY Public Theater), correct?
JW The Free Residency pretty much sold out all four dates, so there's the slight possibility it may briefly come back in the winter or I may just let it stand as its own moment and let it go. I know that Aaron and I have talked about getting some studio tracks recorded from the show so that may be a way for the highlights to live on. Razia’s Shadow is pretty amazing and has been developed by the Public Theatre for a couple of years now. The recent shows (11/28-29) sold out in a day, so I'm optimistic about a future life for it and hope I can remain involved. The music is totally unreal. I've also been working on a piece about AIDS activist Michael Callen for the past couple of years called Even for One Night (directed by Santaland director, Adam Fitzgerald) and I know they are in serious talks to give that an ongoing future life. I'm really passionate about that going forward because he was a remarkable, if controversial, man.
SW From cabaret to Santaland to Disney Diaries, you seem to excel in one-man shows. Do you prefer this format or has it just ended up that way by chance?
JW It was a skill I began to hone playing Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch in 2001, essentially a one-man show. I got very comfortable in that sense of "fearless play" with an audience... and that fed in to my portrayal of the Emcee in Cabaret at HMT. The audience needs to trust you and want to spend close to 90 minutes with you. If Hedwig taught me anything it was that you need to love yourself before anyone else can. I think there is a difference between being ingratiating and appealing to your audience, but you kind of get to the point where you become okay with the fact that some people just aren't going to like what you are doing and join you. I spend the first 30 seconds subtly ensuring people that if they come with me I promise to not lead them astray. This is even more difficult in cabaret because if people don't like the show, they inherently don't like you. You've gotta let them go, because if I spent the next hour trying to get them to "like me" I'm going to neglect everyone else. It took a long time for me to learn how to deal with that and be comfortable with it. It's about feeling the energy in the room and playing to it while staying consistent and giving the same show. I've actually never thought about how complicated that is. Thanks for that question.
SW What do you hope to do in your free time in Saratoga?
JW First off – I am phenomenally bummed that Beverly's is closed and not just because I worked there full-time for close to 2 years. Michael made the absolute best eggs benedict I've ever had and I consider myself a world-traveled connoisseur. I'll settle for an egg breakfast sandwich & Green Mountain coffee at the original Country Corner. I imagine I'll spend a substantial amount of time at The Candy Company loading up on pumpkin fudge and dark chocolate bark. I'm also excited to drag my director Adam who is generally hooked up to a Venti Starbucks IV to Uncommon Grounds in an attempt to wean him from corporate America and towards the finer things. Hours inside Lyrical Ballad are also on tap.
SW Thanks for your time, and please, could you save me the prettiest feral cat after the show?
JW Well, obviously!
The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris, starring Jonathan Whitton
Presented by Home Made Theater at the Spa Little Theater in the Saratoga State Park
December 13 and 16 at 7pm and December 15 at 8pm.
All tickets $18.
Info and tickets are available at www.homemadetheater.org/santaland.php or at 587-4427
ON THE WIRE