ASPEN - "The Spirit of Aspen Spectacular," a musical with an original story by Jayne Gottlieb Productions that debuts this week at the Wheeler Opera House, goes heavy on the kind of images and ideas that might be found in a promotional brochure. The story is set in the snowy holiday season and populated with legends of Aspen's part and present. The characters traipse from Paepcke Park to the Wheeler Opera House, Pitkin County Dry Goods to Belly Up. And the stage - well, Jayne Gottlieb, who produces, directs, choreographs and co-wrote the show, calls the stage "all of Aspen itself." "It's a ski shop, the Little Nell hotel, the Aspen Candy store," Gottlieb said, noting that she brought in a set designer, Greer Beecroft, from Atlanta. There are lights, actual trees, a video screen with photos of the town and surrounding mountains looking picture-card perfect, Santa and his reindeer, a live five-piece band. And what would the holidays be without kids? "The Spirit of Aspen Spectacular" cast features has 25 of them, to go with three adult actors.
"It's lights and sparkle and snow and fresh air and fun. Happiness," Gottlieb said. "The story is about what makes Aspen so special for the holidays. It speaks to the magic of our town."
There are plenty, though, who would argue that what makes Aspen special is something a bit more than the surface lights and sparkle. As Elizabeth and Walter Paepcke, the founders of modern Aspen, had it, the town would be a place that would foster humankind's quest to realize its full potential of mind, body and spirit. Or as that formulation is often termed, the Aspen Idea.
As it happens, Elizabeth "Pussy" Paepcke is among the people who come to life in "The Spirit of Aspen Spectacular." The story - co-written by Gottlieb, local actor and director Mike Monroney, and Carbondale playwright and film producer Harriet Spalding - focuses on the Moore family, from Chicago, who arrive for their Aspen vacation wanting ... more. One of the Moore children, Becca (played by Jayne Gottlieb veteran Becca Maniscalchi), gets in a fight over a Gucci bag she wants to buy. In the shopping-spree melee, she falls, hits her head on the ice, and blacks out. While unconscious, she has a reverie (shades of "The Nutcracker") in which she is visited by the Spirit of Christmas (shades of "A Christmas Carol"). The Spirit (Nina Gabianelli) takes her on a journey through Aspen, and through the years.
Becca is introduced to the sportswear icon Klaus Obermeyer (Ken Quiricone), who is orchestrating a group of toy soldiers as they create Christmas (a nod to the Rockettes holiday show at New York's Radio City Music Hall). She meets John Denver (who several decades ago hosted a series of Christmas TV specials from Aspen), and witnesses a performance of "Thank God I'm a Country Boy." Enter Pussy Paepcke (Peggy Wilkie) who joins Denver (Quiricone) in a version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside." In act two, there are visits to Belly Up and the Wheeler Opera House.
ASPEN - Along the way, amidst the songs ("Seasons of Love," "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," "All I Want for Christmas Is You," the Motown number "Shop Around") and tap-dancing, Aspen reveals to Becca something she hadn't learned back in Chicago: that Christmas is about giving more than receiving.
"After she sees all the lights and the splendor and the giving and cheer, she comes to the realization: Christmas is about giving. And that it is in the act of giving that we receive. It's about giving of yourself," Gottlieb said. "It's Elizabeth Paepcke's idea of becoming a 'whole' person, of giving back and serving others, is reflected through this holiday of giving."
Becca passes along the gift to the rest of the family. In the show's thematic climax, she brings her family to Paepcke Park to help in a community-wide decorating of a tree. The show ends with a selfless act by Becca which inspires others to display their generosity, and the singing of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."
Jayne Gottlieb Productions isn't leaving the lessons about generosity on the stage. The "Spirit of Aspen Spectacular" performance on Saturday doubles as a food-drive for Lift-Up, a local organization that provides services to those in need. Audience members who donate food items will receive a $5 discount on their tickets. (Friday's opening performance is Local's Night, with local residents getting a $5 discount on tickets. And Santa will make an appearance at Sunday's performance, a matinee.)
Gottlieb had no problem conjuring up the idealized vision of Aspen for the current show. "There's a feeling you get when you're here, this magic," she said. "I'd say that sums up our show pretty well."
And she had little difficulty finding the soul beneath the exterior. Gottlieb has been producing kids-oriented productions in the valley since 2005, and her work has been embraced; this will be her third Christmas-time appearance in the Wheeler Opera House, where she staged a version of "White Christmas" in 2009 and '10.
"Underneath the glitz and consumerism that sometimes come to overshadow the true Aspen Idea, it's easy to buy into this idea of Aspen," she said. "I invite everyone who comes to see the show to buy into the Aspen Idea. Go out and ski and play in the snow and frolic. And offer more than just your spare change - offer some of your time and yourself in service."