Sledding, ice skating, making angels in the snow and building snow men are among everyone’s favorite winter activities. Adventure Theatre (AT) brings the magic of a snow day to life with its latest production, “Frosty the Snow Man.” Montgomery County native Jason Schlafstein makes his AT debut as director of the show. He approached the production with two guiding ideas. First, he said, he wanted to communicate “the magic of winter in a nondenominational way,” and second, “it’s really important to me to capture the attention of the entire family.”
Based on the classic Christmas song of the same name, the plot revolves around a group of friends enjoying a snow day off school. When two boys add a silk hat to their snowman, Frosty springs to life, becoming a magical friend to lead the children through one adventurous day before he melts.
When Schlafstein’s team gathered for a reading, the script ran only 21 minutes, leaving plenty of room for collaboration and creativity on the part of the production team as well as the seven actors featured in the show. Together, they brainstormed all the things they loved about winter, especially when they were children. The mix included the childhood “high-octane energy of running around and the serenity of a night looking out at the winter snow and lights,” Schlafstein said.
He was the kid who made fun of his peers for going to theater camp, but then, one summer, there he was. “I don’t remember making the decision,” he said with a chuckle. The camp, run by the JCC in Rockville, gave him the drama bug.
While studying at the University of Maryland, College Park, Schlafstein acted under the direction of Jerry Whiddon in a production of “The Crucible.” Whiddon had just retired from a 20-year position as Round House Theatre’s producing artistic director. “He blew me away with his directing,” Schlafstein said. Watching the great director in action inspired him to do the same. Whiddon became a mentor to Schlafstein, who assisted the director on productions for several years.
Schlafstein learned from another mentor, Michael Bobbitt, who serves as artistic director at Adventure Theatre and on the advisory board of Flying V, Schlafstein’s own theater company. He offered Schlafstein the opportunity to direct “Frosty,” and the young director jumped at the chance. “It’s my first opportunity to do a show in a larger theater as a director,” he said.
The production is full of dancing, acrobatic flips and a running model train. Characters make snow angels, have snowball fights and even “ice skate” during a rollerblading number, all performed to an original score by composer and sound designer Kenny Neal.
“Frosty,” played by Dallas Tolentino, “is a phenomenal actor with a joyous soul,” Schlafstein said. “I can’t imagine anyone else in the role. He is the heart of this show.” Tolentino’s seemingly effortless grasp of the show’s choreography requires a mastery of moves from ballet, stomp and breakdancing as well as circus acrobatics.
Schlafstein has a history of creating productions rich in movement, as evidenced by the critically-acclaimed Flying V. Schlafstein and his friend Johnathan Ezra Rubin joined forces in 2011 to start the company, which has earned rave reviews for being both edgy and thoughtful and for attracting millennials to live theater performances.
Schlafstein made a conscious decision to make Frosty’s nemesis, a grumpy lady played by Farrell Parker, a young woman. “I didn’t want an old, mean stereotype like in the original script,” the director said. Rather, he saw the character as an opportunity to engage with adult members of the audience. Ms. Armbruster does not enjoy cold weather and finds Frosty’s noisy antics and incessant bell-ringing annoying, so she enlists the help of a bumbling cop, played by Matthew Aldwin McGee, to catch the cheerful man made of snow. By the end of the story, however, Ms. Armbruster realizes that she had “a decent day,” Schlafstein said.
After the opening night performance, he recalled, an audience member approached the actress during a reception and thanked her. “She was from Puerto Rico, and did not grow up with winters,” he said. “She told Farrell how much she appreciated her character because she is not a fan of winter either.”
From the note of pride in his voice, it’s clear that connecting with his audience is the director’s greatest pleasure. “Frosty is the spirit of winter so he isn’t one size fits all,” he said, explaining how he wanted the play to tap into “the magic for each person.”
While AT’s production of “Frosty the Snow Man” is nostalgic and full of cheerful musical numbers, it’s not all fun and games. Because Frosty is made of snow, he is only around for one day. “It’s an emotional moment at the end when the kids say good-bye and the audience feels sad,” Schlafstein said. “Even the kids [in the audience] get sad,” he added. Ultimately, the young director wants audiences to consider “how you can make the most of your day.”
“Frosty the Snow Man” runs through Jan. 7 at Adventure Theatre in Glen Echo Park, 7300 McArthur Blvd., Glen Echo. Tickets are $19.95. Call 301-634-2270 or visit adventuretheatre-mtc.org. View this performance on CultureSpotMC here.