By Jim Sullivan
---- — As the director and producer of “The Littlest Angel,” Anna Smulowitz has been pondering just what Christmas means in the 21st century.
“What really makes us happy?” Smulowitz asked. “Is it another trinket? Or is it something that is just very precious to us that belongs to humankind? It sounds a little soggy, but Christmas seems to allow for that sort of sentimentality.”
Smulowitz adapted the Charles Tazewell short story for the theater with Laila Streiff more than 20 years ago and has brought it back to Newburyport by popular demand. This weekend’s performances at Belleville Congregational Church will mark the fifth time that the musical has been produced here.
“The Littlest Angel” tells the tale of a child who dies and goes to heaven, then must make the transition from being a mere mortal to an angel.
“There are some very moving moments that are very believable,” Smulowitz said. “The longing of this child to go home and his adjusting to heaven and the people welcoming him and loving him, people really feel like it’s the true story of what happened at Christmas. Of the birth of Christ, a child is born, and heaven went crazy over it.”
The show boasts an interfaith double cast of roughly 30 local adults and children, including Woody Woodiel, Jeff Larson, Madeline Sherwood, Steven Berger, Emily Fluet and James Nation. Joey Cates and Jesse Rosenthal share the title role. The original music was written by Michael Yell and Bill Plante Jr., and the choreography was created by Linda Zirin and Deirdre Budzyna.
“I don’t think we can do community theater without community,” Smulowitz said. “That’s why we’re still here for 35 years. The community has always come to the shows. That is what keeps the doors open, if people come out and see them.”
Rounding out the cast is the Belleville Church’s own reverend, Ross Varney, who, interestingly enough, plays Democritus, the nonbeliever.
“Part of every faith is the little bits of doubt,” Varney said. “Being OK with questions.”
Although he spends most of his time in front of his congregation, this production only marks Varney’s third time onstage after a not-so-stellar performance during his junior year of high school. But he jokes that he left them wanting more as Hansel in his third-grade production of “Hansel and Gretel.”
“I get to ad-lib and use my own words and my own expressions,” Varney said of his ministerial life. “Acting, I’ve discovered, is a little bit more exacting, even though I still hope to have a little bit of freedom with a few lines. I’m onstage for five minutes, but it’s a little more difficult than what I imagined.”
Faith and doubt are different sides of the same coin, Varney said, and he is enjoying the opportunity to work alongside Smulowitz, who is a Jewish chaplain.
“She and I are totally interfaith-oriented,” Varney said. “We’ve had some wonderful little sidebars outside of this experience, too. We’ve had some wonderful conversations.”
With all the different faiths and hometown affiliations commingling, differences may come up, but everyone is united in making sure the show must go on.
“They are singing with all their heart and soul,” Smulowitz said of her cast. “It’s not about what town you come from. What they have in common is their love of the arts and theater, and that creates instant community.
“The ability to sing, dance and act is an incredible gift to give to yourself and to others.”
If you go
What: “The Littlest Angel”
When: Tomorrow at 7 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 7 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m.
Where: Belleville Congregational Church, 300 High St., Newburyport
How much: $15 for adults and $12 for seniors and students. Tickets available at the door and online at ww1.mktix.com. Part of the proceeds benefit the church’s programs and charitable work.
More information: 978-502-8468