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Theater

‘It’s Like A Boomerang’: Yuletide Affair Keeps Performers Coming Back to Whitefish

Earlier this week the Alpine Theatre Project wrapped up a three-night run of performances for Yuletide Affair 19.

By Mike Kordenbrock

In his own estimation, Cameron Mitchell Bell has been performing since he was 2. It’s been a long and varied career for Bell as an actor, singer, and stage performer, including Broadway tours, international tours and even roles in Disney Cruise Line performances.

Bell, 37, a South Carolina native, said he came to Montana for the first time last year, and also performed in a show that was different from anything he’d done before — the 19th iteration of the Alpine Theatre Project’s “Yuletide Affair,” a blend of consistency and change, a mixture of practiced perfection and adjusting on the fly and, somehow, a mad dash and a well-oiled machine.

A 2022 Alpine Theatre Project Performance of Yuletide Affair 19. Photo by Matt Wetzler.

 The Alpine Theatre Project holiday show, which wrapped up its three-night run in Whitefish this week, combines original and classic holiday songs with dance, satire and live music. The cast of performers gets together about a week before opening night, bringing with them song ideas and suggestions, but not a preconceived list of what’s in or what’s out.

Then the work starts.

After the show wraps, it’s not uncommon for performers to hop on a flight in the next day or two to return to whatever state they live and work in for most of the year.

But many of those performers keep coming back, leaving larger metros and performance meccas to return to the stage in Whitefish for a brief winter interlude, which some have come to see as a family reunion of sorts. Among the cast are those like Erica von Kleist, who has put down roots and stayed, even as others flit in and out of the cast depending on the circumstances of their lives.

Actors Luke Walrath, Billy Thompson, Dustin Brayley, Eric Krop and Rebecca Spear from the Alpine Theatre Project perform for a scene for a Yuletide music video in Whitefish on Dec. 12, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

 Julie Foldesi, a musician and Broadway actress who lives in Fairfield, Connecticut, remembers performing in ATP’s first-ever production almost 20 years ago alongside Yuletide Affair Director Betsi Morrison, who is also ATP’s producing artistic director. Several years later, Foldesi performed in her first Yuletide. After more time off to account for Broadway shows, she finally made it back with her 1-year-old daughter (now age 8) in tow.

 “We stayed on the mountains and my parents came. It was magical,” Foldesi said.

The community and the welcome he received is one of the special things about the show for DeWitt Fleming, a member of this year’s Yuletide cast who grew up in Washington, D.C., and currently lives in New York City. Fleming, a tap dancer who has performed with Alicia Keys, Wynton Marsalis and Bobby McFerrin, and was also featured in “Boardwalk Empire” and “America’s Got Talent,” said the opportunity to leave the city life he’s familiar with is a refreshing experience every time it comes. He first joined the cast in 2017.

 “Just coming out here and kind of being part of the community. You know, everybody opening their arms and sharing their homes, their landscape, taking you to Glacier and showing you all the things,” Fleming said. “For me, those are the fondest memories, and why I keep coming back.”

A 2022 Alpine Theatre Project Performance of Yuletide Affair 19. Photo by Matt Wetzler.

The pace of the show’s production, which progresses from the early brainstorming to rehearsal to performance, is unusual in the industry. But Fleming said he thinks Morrison does a good job picking the right people, and while some shows require directors tell their performers what to do, he said there doesn’t seem to be a need for handholding among the Yuletide group.

 There is a kind of pressure to it, though, and Bell, who currently lives in New York City, admitted he had nerves when he signed onto his first Yuletide just a couple months after performing in ATP’s run of “Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

 “I was like, ‘can I do this? Is this going to be too hard for me?’” Bell said, adding that memorizing such a large volume of material in so short a time span adds to the difficulty. Having been through it once already, Bell said those doubts have faded. Instead, he’s savoring the chance to work in an industry oriented around live performance, even as it continues to struggle amid an ongoing recovery from pandemic-related strains.

Being able to work and perform with his close friends, fellow Yuletide Affair performers Eric Michael Krop and Tracy McDowell, is also something that Bell holds dear.

“Just being able to create art with your best friends is so amazing,” Bell said. “Alpine does a really great job of making it feel like a family. That’s why they thrive, and I think it’s Betsi’s goal.”

For von Kleist, a Whitefish-based musician and performer, this year’s Yuletide Affair will be a particularly significant one, in that it’s running right up against a transition point in her life. She’s been in Whitefish for the last 10 years, but by Dec. 29 she’ll be on her way to the airport with a one-way ticket to New York City. Von Kleist grew up in Connecticut but has more or less lived in New York since she was a high-schooler, she said, and was recently hired to teach at the Manhattan School of Music.

An orchestra pit position in an ATP production of “Little Shop of Horrors” brought her to Whitefish from New York City in the summer of 2012.

“I was at a point in my life where I needed a change, and this place sort of drew me here,” she said.

In this year’s Yuletide, she’ll be switching between a number of woodwind instruments, performing saxophone solos, and singing an original song called, “Oops, I Didn’t Get A Present,” which she said is a comedic song based on the sentiment of being handed a present and awkwardly having nothing to hand back in return.

Looking back over her years in Yuletide, von Kleist said one memory that sticks out involves David Ackroyd, one of ATP’s founding members. One of the running gags for that year’s show was that Ackroyd, seated on a motorized scooter, would come on and offstage making announcements. But his backstage driving took a turn for the worse when the scooter got caught on a Christmas tree as he was riding directly behind the band. Ackroyd managed to bring the entire tree down mid-performance. The crowd laughed along with it, von Kleist said.

“I think people did think it was part of the show, so we just kind of went with it.”

While von Kleist’s New York move is imminent, she does have plans to make occasional visits back to Whitefish. In trying to explain what brings performers to this corner of Montana again and again for Yuletide Affair, she likened it to an object that, when thrown, keeps returning to hand.

“Coming from a place like New York, or maybe L.A., having an opportunity to spend 10 days in, like, a beautiful, picture-perfect snow globe place and play great music with friends and new friends, it’s like a boomerang,” von Kleist said. “People always want to come back.”

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