It’s nearly showtime at Imagination Theater, where the dreams of young and old are about to unfold in a musical holiday show.
Story by Nicholas Drake • Photos by David Calvert
Up the steps the little feet scurry, landing center stage in a circle. The piping sounds of young voices fill the air as family, friends and patrons of Imagination Theater settle into their seats with hot chocolate and cool cider. The singers warm up but peek to see where mom, dad, grandma or grandpa might be.
Concessioners, ticket-takers and stagehands are at the ready. The magical and humorous tale of “Madeline’s Christmas” is about to unfold. It’s holiday time in Placerville, California, where being a part of the theater is a rite of passage for the town of 10,389 residents.
“My favorite part of performing is being with all the other cast members,” says Gianna Kaldunski, who has the lead role of Madeline. “We’re like one big family.”
The 11-year-old has summed up the attraction. Family is at the heart of it all in Placerville. It’s a place where you make friends for life even when you’ve just met.
“I think all the girls are fun and nice,” says 9-year-old Charlotte Loeprich, who plays the part of Kate in her fifth theater performance. “It’s better than school.”
An usher walks up the center aisle, whispering, “Find your seats everyone. The show is about to begin.”
Stage lights burst brightly on cue as the cast of 16 masterfully unwraps the story of young Madeline taking care of her bedridden boarding schoolmates at Christmastime. The 1956 book by Ludwig Bemelmans springs to life as the audience basks in the glow of the holiday presentation.
Thirteen girls, two women, and one man make up this year’s holiday cast, along with a trio of understudies. The crew hits all the right notes and turns the small community theater production into joyful celebration. As the energetic Madeline, Kaldunski weaves the storyline of attending to her schoolmates’ many comical requests with aplomb. All the girls have the flu and may not make it home to their families for Christmas.
“That little 16-inch riser changes lives,” says Peter Wolfe, who co-founded Imagination Theater with fellow thespian and fellow Placerville Kiwanian Lanny Langston. “It’s my greatest delight to watch it all happen.”
The duo launched an idea in 1999 to bring topnotch productions like “Les Misérables” and “Our Town” to the Placerville community. The collective applause has been deafening. Averaging 20 performances of four or five shows a year, the venture now enters its third decade a runaway success.
“I’ve been acting since I was seven years old,” says Langston. “I love acting and I love working with fellow actors, especially the talent we have right here in El Dorado County.”
On stage this night, these talents shine with humor, hubris and drama. The adult actors portraying Miss Clevel, Mrs. Murphy and Monsieur Brun interact seamlessly with the kids taking on the roles of Madeline, Simone, Anne and Amy. Everyone in the cast is having a blast, and the audience is entranced.
There’s a gentle, telling moment in the play when cast members look at one another and give pause to the enormity of what they are doing with a knowing giggle. They quickly compose themselves and move on to the next unveiling of Madeline’s story.
Intermission breaks up the audience laughter as attendees head to the lobby for snacks and beverages. There’s a buzz about the show. “It’s going so well!” says one proud parent to another. “They really have that Christmas spirit up there tonight,” says another.
People in Placerville quickly bond over shared family experiences. The greetings and smiles in the lobby are immediate and embracing. Wolfe and Langston know everyone on a personal basis.
“Peter’s the artistic guy, the guru of sets and the director for many of our productions,” says Langston. “We’re a perfect match to make this whole thing a success.”
Placervillians certainly think so, if the response to tonight’s show is any indication. As the onstage story resumes, the magical rug merchant Harsha finds a way to get the schoolgirls back home in time for Christmas.
The play kicks up a beat as the cast strolls into the audience for a dazzling number. Friends and family wink at their favorite actors singing just a few feet away from them. The familiarity between the players and the attendees is palpable. It should be. There’s a role for all in this setting.
“It really is a family affair,” says Becca Kaldunski, assistant director of “Madeline’s Christmas” and mother of Gianna. “My son, Jayce, played the lead role when Imagination Theater staged ‘Oliver’ in 2014. Lanny got him interested in taking part in theater. … It’s a wonderful experience.”
A dozen or so Placerville Kiwanians perfect tonight’s performance by hanging decorations, painting backdrops and taking tickets at the door.
“We’re a pretty close-knit group,” Wolfe says. “Proceeds from tonight’s performance will go to our club. In turn, we’ll donate to The Eliminate Project, Kiwanis International’s global campaign toward eliminating maternal and neonatal tetanus.”
As the show winds down, the enthusiasm soars on stage. The story closes with the girls getting home for Christmas but reuniting back at boarding school, where they bond over the entire adventure.
The curtain closes on “Madeline’s Christmas” for another successful Imagination Theater performance. The cast reemerges to take a bow.
Merry Christmas, Placerville. You have a good thing going on there.
This story originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Kiwanis magazine.