Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

A Servants' ChristmasHistory Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!


Serena Brook, Sullivan Cooper, Cathleen Fuller,
and Nicola Wahl

Photo by Rick Spaulding
A bout with COVID-19 set me back in reviewing the abundant holiday seasonal offerings on Twin Cities stages, so I am now in a flurry to do catch up as best I can. Fortunately, I made it to Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! at Children's Theater Company before the illness struck (maybe it was the Grinch's revenge for revealing to the world that he really had a good heart after all, deep, deep inside).

Getting back in the groove, I made it first to the musical A Servant's Christmas at History Theatre. Set in an elegant residence on Saint Paul's elite Summit Avenue, Mr. Warner, the head of the household, has been bereft ever since his wife Angelina died, leaving behind a teenage daughter, Anne, and precocious young son, Richmond. Angelina had been the soul of the family. In her absence, Warner becomes a stern taskmaster with no taste for frivolity and little ability to offer affection to his children, who suffer their own grief. He even forbids any festivity for the upcoming Christmas holiday.

The household staff, an English butler named Eric and a German cook named Frieda, keep the home running smoothly, if not happily, but they have gone through a number of "second girls," unable to keep any on staff, and so are hopeful of things becoming more manageable when Monica arrives. Monica is a good worker, hits it off well with Anne and Richmond, and even wins over the children's rigid governess, Miss Pettingill. When Warner is called out of town during Christmas week, the servants and children seize the opportunity to have a real Christmas celebration, the children invoking their mother's bounteous spirit. Monica, however, is Jewish, a secret she has kept from the family and other staff, fearing they would not knowingly have a Jew in their home. Her fear is confirmed by talk she hears around the house, including outrage that a Jewish temple is being built right on Summit Avenue. Imagine!

I recall seeing this play about twenty-five years ago and found it quite moving and well performed. However, what I saw back then was the straight (as in, non-musical) play by John Fenn that premiered in 1980 and was subsequently staged sixteen times by History Theatre. It was not this even more affecting musical, for which Fenn wrote the book and Drew Jansen provided music and lyrics, commissioned by History Theatre and premiering in 2004.

The songs themselves are pleasing, if not distinctive, but they bring a valuable dimension to the story. The addition of songs, and their ability to reveal interior thoughts and feelings in ways a straight play cannot, makes A Servants' Christmas (and notice where the apostrophe is placed) about more than only Monica, but how her presence loosens up the other staff members, gives the children license to be ... well, children, and ... well, I need not tell you more. The conclusion is no surprise to anyone who is familiar with the logic that governs holiday shows but is nonetheless warmly uplifting.

The music and the movement–Tinia Moulder's choreography has a homespun feel that perfectly suits the sense of the working class tossing off their fetters and letting loose–magnify the play's emotional effect along with its ebullience. The second act opening number, "'Twill Soon Be Christmas Day," is a right jolly tune and is given an especially winning staging. Another highlight is the insertion of a delightful old chestnut, "Where Did You Get That Hat?" written by vaudevillian Joseph J. Sullivan in 1888, which, while obscure today, would have been extremely popular at the time the play takes place.

Ron Peluso's first job with History Theatre in 1988 was to direct a production of A Servants' Christmas, already a mainstay of their holiday season. Eight years later, Peluso became History Theatre's Artistic Director. After twenty-seven years at its helm, Peluso is stepping down from that position, and the current production is his generous parting gift to theatergoers. He has paced the show with the sharp precision Mr. Warner himself would require, while giving the actors breathing room to fully inhabit their characters and allowing for bits of playful stage business that soften the ache of the narrative's more serious moments. It is beautifully staged, fluidly moving action and actors between the three main playing spaces, each a room within the Warner manse.

The set is masterfully rendered by Rick Polenek, and when first revealed behind the home's imposing exterior fa├žade, it produced an audible gasp from the wowed audience. Chris Johnson's lighting directs us from spot to spot and effectively alters the mood from scene to scene, while Kirby Moore provides the large number of props needed to create the feel of a well-furnished, upper-class home circa 1900. E. Amy Hill's costumes capture the flavor of the period, with a dazzling red costume, complete with an elaborately plumed hat, for an unexpected visitor who appears in the second act.

On to the cast, every one of whom excel. Serena Brook makes her History Theatre debut as Monica, the central character who accomplishes the necessary balance between presenting a strong and appealing personality while submerging important aspects of her identity. She has a lovely voice put to especially good use in songs that express her fears, dreams, and resolve to action. Gary Briggle as the butler, Eric, and Cathleen Fuller as cook Freida are both terrific, brandishing their respective polished British and fussy German accents and having wonderful chemistry as a pair who have worked together long to know each other's weak spots while having an unspoken affection for one another. Fuller especially shows Freida's ability to change, as she goes from scornfully calling Monica "Second Girl," rather than by her name, to stepping up to her defense when the truth comes to the surface.

Eric Morris ably expresses the grief beneath Mr. Warner's brusque treatment of his children and his staff, making "Steropticon," a moving testimony to his desperate loneliness. Norah Long is ideal as that unexpected visitor, whose exuberance, self-assuredness and wisdom enable Monica to step out of the shadow of her fears and become confident in herself. Long has the beauty–in both face and voice–to do justice to her character, giving a beautiful delivery of "The Miracle of Light."

Nicola Wahl as Anne and Sullivan Cooper as Richmond create genuine characters of the two children, each with a defined personality, and Cooper especially shines both in displays of youthful mischief and in a fine, clear singing voice. Jen Burleigh-Bentz does a great job as Miss Pettingill, allowing us to see her stern demeanor melt away a bit, and she makes great sport of the prattling "It Simply Isn't Done." Erin Capello Kopp appears in the minds of Mr. Warner, Anne, and Richmond as they remember their beloved wife and mother. She is not so much a character as a flickering image, but Kopp brings a heartfelt voice to those occasions.

The score is played by just two musicians, music director David Lohman on piano and Zelda Younger on clarinet. The coupling of these two manages to create a wide range of intonations and is especially effective when Younger's exquisite performance on clarinet evokes the klezmer sounds that swirl in Monica's memory of life in the Jewish community she left behind in Chicago. Rather than diminishing the music's impact, limiting it to just these two instruments gives it an integrity that enhances the entire work.

A Servants' Christmas is a show with great heart, depicting a part of our nation's history of prejudice that, we are learning every day, has not yet been completely overcome. It speaks to the capacity of finding common ground among different ethnic backgrounds, social classes, and religions, and it addresses these themes while entertaining, with song, humor, and a splendid physical production. It makes a wonderful holiday outing that families can enjoy together, and a beautiful parting gift from director Ron Peluso.

A Servants' Christmas through December 18, 2022, at History Theatre, 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: Tiers 1-3: $48.00 - $63.00; seniors (age 60+) $5.00 discount; under 30 tickets - $40.00; Student tickets: $15.00. For tickets and information, please call 651-292-4323 or visit historytheatre.com.

Book: John Fenn; Music and Lyrics: Drew Jansen; Director: Ron Peluso; Music Director: David Lohman, Choreography: Tinia Moulder; Scenic Design: Rick Polenek; Costume Design: E. Amy Hill; Lighting Design: Chris Johnson; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Properties Design: Kirby Moore; Costume Assistant: Ingrid Maas; Technical Director: Gunther Gullickson; Stage Manager: Janet Hall; Assistant Stage Manager: Deirdre McQuillin; Assistant Director and Dramaturg: Jacob Hellman.

Cast: Gary Briggle (Eric the Butler), Serena Brook (Monica the 2nd Girl), Jen Burleigh-Bentz (Miss Pettingill), Sullivan Cooper (Richmond Warner), Cathleen Fuller (Frieda the Cook), Erin Capello Kopp (Angelina Warner), Nora Long (The Visitor), Eric Morris (Mr. Warner), Nicola Wahl (Anne Warner).


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