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Alaska’s King Island Christmas going “over the mountain” and across the pond

Posted: July 21, 2013 - 12:03am

When the lights go down and the voices of Alaska’s King Island Christmas begin to sing, audiences will be transported to a remote, rugged, mountainous island off the coast of Alaska in the Bering Sea. For three days only, beginning with a pay as you can performance on Thursday, July 25, Juneauites will have an opportunity to see Alaska’s King Island Christmas prior the cast’s departure for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe where it hopes to transport audiences from there to Alaska, if only for ninety minutes.

In 1951-52, Alaska artist Rie Muñoz was living and working on King Island and witnessed a most extraordinary feat. In those days, The North Star, a US government boat, came to the island twice a year; in the fall to deliver winter supplies and the village priest, in the spring to deliver more supplies and take the priest away. The year Muñoz was there, an impending storm threatened the supply ship’s arrival. Rather than spend the winter without goods and their religious leader, the villagers carried their oomiak (walrus skin boat) over the island’s mountain to meet the ship on the calm, leeward side.

It was an extraordinary undertaking that involved almost every villager, one Muñoz later told her friend and children’s book author Jean Rogers about after moving to Juneau.

Rogers was so taken by the story she adapted it changed the timing from fall to much closer to Christmas (making the priest’s arrival even more important) and wrote the children’s book that Muñoz illustrated. In the mid-nineties, award-winning playwright Deborah Brevoort wrote the libretto to which composer, as well as conductor, musical director and vocal arranger for a number of Disney musicals on Broadway, David Friedman, put music. The result was King Island Christmas, a tribute to the tiny Alaskan community that “saved Christmas” due to their creativity and determination.

Premiered in Juneau by Perseverance Theatre in the mid-90s, the show was an annual holiday offering for a number of years, but eventually ran its course. Enter Sharon Gaiptman, Deborah Smith and Missouri Smyth, who in 2010 were determined to revive the show as a tribute to Rogers and Muñoz. They produced the show then and again this past holiday season to standing-room only crowds over two weekends. 

Now the show will be performed at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center just prior to departure for Scotland. Shows will be Thursday, July 25 (pay as you can) at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, July 26 (after Food Truck Friday); Saturday, July 27 at 3:30 p.m. (King Island Christmas Sing-along) and again that evening at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 general admission, $15 for seniors, $10 for students with valid ID and free for children under five.

It’s a simple show with a strong message, and while many past productions have included costumes, props and sets, the team has kept it simple, relying on Brevoort’s libretto and Friedman’s music to tell the story. In Edinburgh, the show will again be performed with children from the Alaska Youth Choir, adults from throughout the community of Juneau and others who have sung in the show in the past.

The cast and family members have been fundraising for more than a year to support the production and members of the Alaska Youth Choir who will perform in Glasgow and at Stirling Castle prior to the performances at the Fringe. Through bake sales, a dinner, youth dances, pizza and chili sales, pancake breakfasts, a Kickstarter campaign (that successfully raised more than $11,000), other events and their personal donations, all have persevered to help raise the more than $130,000 needed to make the Scotland trip.

For more information about this production of Alaska’s King Christmas visit AKKIC.com . The general site for “all things King Island Christmas” is www.kingislandchristmas.com .

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