The original commission, when it came from a theatre in San Diego, was just quirky enough to make Lucia Frangione smile.
“Lambs Players in San Diego wanted me to write a four-person Christmas show that did not have music and was historical, and had a sort of poetic rhythm to it and was a comedy,” she says.
“These were the guidelines, and I thought ‘Oh, my goodness’ — and I only had a year to write it.”
On the other hand, Frangione had been researching the history of the Gold Rush, which was filled with a mythology of the Canadian wilderness in the late 19th century that included overnight riches, wild camels — and some uncomfortable racism.
Toss that into the theatrical blender – along with an alcoholic ex-Anglican minister, a pregnant-out-of-wedlock showgirl, Hamlet, The Last of the Mohicans, A Christmas Carol and the Book of Luke – and out came Cariboo Magi, a holiday show unlike any other, which opens Nov. 10 at Rosebud Theatre, for its first return engagement since 2002.
It tells the story of a ragtag group who come together in a San Diego saloon, where they intercept a contract to present a holiday show in northern B.C., causing them to set off on a long road trip up the West Coast, only to discover just prior to taking the stage in the small Gold Rush town of Barkerville that they’ve rehearsed the wrong material.
“I knew that several touring troupes did come over from England all the way up to the Cariboo,” Frangione says, “and sometimes they would make it in the weather, and sometimes they wouldn’t.
“So this all inspired me to create this.”
When the show was first performed at Rosebud in 2002, Morris Ertman was in his first year as artistic director, Nathan Schmidt played young Joe Mackey, and Norma Roth played Marta, the pregnant showgirl.
Now, 15 years later, Ertman is the theatre’s longtime artistic director and Schmidt has taken over the role of William Teller, the Anglican minister. (Roth is back in 2017, too, as Madame Fanny Dubeau.)
What else hasn’t changed?
Ertman’s affection for Frangione’s playwriting.
“She’s so very good at putting together the sacred and the profane,” he says.
In its early productions in California, the show ran into some resistance, Frangione says.
“Down in California, there were a few places they toured it where they thought it was blasphemous,” she says.
“They stood up (in the theatre) and said, ‘This is blasphemous!’ and, ‘Shut down the show!’ before they actually listened to the whole story!”
“If they’d listened to the whole story, it’s a pretty great story about redemption, but people start at a pretty black place that is incredibly racist. The Anglican minister has given up on his ministry and his church of dreams — and the dancing girl is pregnant out of wedlock. Everybody is in trouble right off the top and then they all find their way, to some degree.”
Fifteen years later, Frangione is at work on her 30th play — a theatrical adaptation of The Thin Man for Vertigo Theatre in Calgary. They haven’t all been hits, but Cariboo Magi is. It’s been performed in Boston, Minneapolis, up and down the state of California, and in many other productions across North America over the years.
“This one is one of my bestsellers,” she says.
“I think (audiences) found the Canadian wild to be quite fascinating,” she says.
Ertman has his own idea of what the enduring appeal of the Cariboo Magi is — one he hopes extends to 2017.
“It’s lots of fun,” he says. “And I think it becomes sublime.
“My hope,” he says, “is that people have a ball in the theatre at Christmas time, and then walk out with something sublime and magical that they have not experienced before with that story, the Christmas story, that story — that’s the hope.”
(Feature image: Zach Running Coyote, Nathan Schmidt, Anna Dalgleish and Norma Roth, the cast of Cariboo Magi. Photo credit: Rosebud Theatr.e)
Rosebud Theatre presents Cariboo Magi from Nov. 10 to Dec. 23. For tickets and more information please go to rosebudtheatre.com.
Stephen Hunt is the 2017 Rosebud Writer in Residence. He wrote about theatre for the Calgary Herald for 10 years and is also the author of The White Guy: A Field Guide. You can reach him at email@example.com, follow him on Twitter here, and read his blog The Halfstep here.