Crystal Palace lives on in Wheeler Opera House performances
IF YOU GO …
What: Crystal Palace ‘Review’
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Friday, Jan. 31 & Saturday, Feb. 1, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $50
Tickets: Wheeler box office; aspenshowtix.com
The Crystal Palace is dead. Long live the Crystal Palace.
Aspen’s iconic dinner theater may have shuttered in 2008, after 51 years of politically incorrect satire at the Hyman Avenue theater. And the Palace building itself was demolished last year. But the Crystal Palace players and its founder Mead Metcalf are returning for a two-night run at the Wheeler Opera House on Friday and Saturday.
Their reunion show at the Wheeler last winter was nostalgia-fueled but still-funny and politically incorrect as always, drawing a sellout crowd and leading to this year’s two-night stand.
“It’s overwhelming,” said Palace vet Nina Gabianelli, who is among eight Palace castmembers returning for this revival, billed the Crystal Palace Review. “We are 12 years out from the Crystal Palace closing now. So there is nearly a whole generation of people who don’t even remember the Crystal Palace and now the building isn’t even standing anymore. So to have a 500-seat theater selling out is pretty cool.”
The Palace Players have returned to the stage in various forms since the dinner theater closed in 2008, including Christmastime performances at the Wheeler and at the Palace-esque Glenwood Vaudeville Revue. This late January/early February slot appears to work well, though they’re not committing to making it an annual tradition yet.
“It’s year by year, depending on interest and availability,” Gabianelli said. “It’s a lot of work, but a lot of fun, too.”
The destruction of the Palace building last year, to make way for a boutique hotel from developer Mark Hunt and his undisclosed financial backers, led to furious outrage in some corners of Aspen and online in scathing Facebook threads. But many in the Palace cast have a more temperate view.
Gabianelli, who as a vice president of the Aspen Historical Society is steeped in local history, noted that the building itself had been renovated and remade long ago and, though built in 1890, it had lost its mining-era historical significance during the 20th century. Metcalf, who bought it in 1960, completely renovated it in the 1970s. The Palace’s signature stained-glass windows and chandeliers, though iconic, were second-hand pieces without historical significance, Gabianelli noted.
The cast has been rehearsing all month to prepare a show that includes newly written song parodies by Meredith Daniel, some Palace classics and some hidden gems from the archive that were surprisingly relevant at the dawn of the 2020s.
One song from 1964, Gabianelli said, felt like it had been written about the social and political tumult of the Trump era.
“I don’t want to give it away, but it plays into how we socially interact with each other today,” she said. “It’s not much different than the ’60s, which is shocking to say the least.”
Metcalf, a remarkably spry 87, is writing fresh material for the show and, of course, performing some classics (yes, count on “The Peanut Butter Affair.”) He has been spoofing the powers that be since the Eisenhower era, so President Trump is an irresistible target. Metcalf last winter premiered a new tune about Trump set to the classic Gilbert and Sullivan song “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” from “Pirates of Penzance” (His began “I am the very model of a stable genius president.”) The Aspen icon spends most of the winters at his home in Sedona, Arizona, but is making a trip here for the performances.
“What a dream it is,” Gabianelli said, “to be his age and still doing what you love.”
Trump and impeachment, of course, loom large in any political commentary today. But the Crystal Palace team is aiming to not overdo it on the president’s foibles as they recognize audiences are already overwhelmed by Trump satire and commentary on TV and online.
“We’re trying not to get stuck on all the negative,” Gabianelli said, noting they’ll touch on topics like Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s royal family exit, the census and immigration along with some Trump material including a spoof of “Sesame Street’s” “People in Your Neighborhood” that skewers the revolving door of federal officials in the Trump administration and asks, “Who are the people in the Cabinet?”
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The nonprofit VOICES led 39 bilingual Basalt Middle School students through a visual journaling project to tell their stories this spring.