The Last Doll: An early Christmas present

When Oxford’s Fred Dankert passed away in March this year at the ripe old age of 83, he left behind a lifetime’s legacy in a variety of arenas. A true Renaissance man, the New York City-born Fred was a veteran, research chemist, inventor, and, how I came to know him, playwright. Through his work with the Oxford Civic Theatre and other local thespian groups, I admired Fred over the years for his hearty laugh, deft comedic touch, and his way with fellow actors.

I can think of no better tribute to the late artist than to re-stage one of his original plays in his memory. That’s what the Oxford troupe is doing this weekend, performing “The Last Doll: A Children’s Christmas Musical” at the high school auditorium tonight and Saturday at 7 p.m.

Co-authored by Oxford’s Diane Thorne, who reworked some of the musical score for this weekend’s show, “The Last Doll” was originally penned by Fred as a short story decades ago before he reimagined it as a musical in partnership with Diane. The Oxford Civic Theatre staged it for the first time in 2008 while Fred was still with us. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see it for reasons I can’t recall, but luckily I was able to remedy that last night at a dress rehearsal for this weekend’s performances.

Act 1 is set in 1950s New York City on the night before Christmas. Thirteen-year-old Eugenia Standish (Kaitlyn Jackson) is a sad little thing, abandoned by her father after her mother’s death and sent to live with her stern, strict grandmother (Colleen Sackett). Poor Eugenia’s only friend is a life-sized doll, Tilly (Amy Branham), a plaything the wicked grandmother is determined to get rid of – on Christmas Eve, no less. As these things are wont to do, that Christmas magic does its thing when the downtrodden Eugenia wishes that Tilly were a real, live girl. All of a sudden Eugenia’s best friend comes to life, although not without a bit of awkwardness – she’s a little stiff, prone to flopping over, and her manners leave a bit to be desired – much to the consternation of the high-society grandmother. Eugenia’s happiness is multiplied with the return of her errant father, Edward (Arik Nesbit), who returns just in time for the holiday, intent on whisking her away to live with him in London.

In Act 2, the entire Standish family has relocated to London, where Eugenia and Tilly attend an all-girls boarding school. The family is threatened by an aristocratic landlord, and hijinks ensue.

Note to readers: I always say “hijinks ensue” when I have to leave in the middle of the second act, like I did last night. Not that I was having a bad time, mind you, but deadline calls early sometimes. Given the quick comedic pace of “The Last Doll,” I’m pretty confident that hijinks did indeed ensue. I can’t wait to see how it turns out in the “real” performances this weekend.

Another old theater friend of mine, Gail Murphy, sits in the director’s chair for “The Last Doll,” and handles her charges with aplomb. There’s a lot of talent on the Blackhawk stage here – Kaitlyn Jackson (seems like this girl is everywhere these days, and deservedly so) and Amy Branham bring Eugenia and Tilly’s friendship to life, and play off each other magnificently – particularly in their number, “Friends Like Us.” Miss Branham sparkles onstage, imbuing Tilly with just the right degree of sass. Colleen Sackett, as always, can do no wrong – she’s one of my favorite local actresses. Paired with Allan Hopson as the Standish’s doddering butler, these two are a comedic pair like no other. Joanie Bradley also stands out as the tipsy proprietor of the London girl’s school, as does Emma Ives as Hilda, the lovestruck maid, and Lea Davis as the impossibly-named Cordelia Plushbottom, a bully who doesn’t exactly take a shine to Eugenia.

The talented cast of “The Last Doll” also features Allen Lang, Donna Cuyle, Cathy Camiel, Dianne Lewis, Teresa Hawley, Tess Markham, Elizabeth Carlson, Alley Freyer, Sarah Camiel, Tricia Bohannon, Halie Rotundo, Marianna Spence, Mary Branham, Fletcher Nisbet, Adam Camiel and Jacob Camiel.

It’s not often that you get to see an all-original play or musical staged in Chenango County, written and performed by its residents. “The Last Doll” is a spectacular example of that – comedy, music, dance and plenty of heartfelt Christmas magic. I highly recommend it as an early Christmas present!

Follow me on Twitter ... @evesunjeff.

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