Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

HolidateYellow Tree Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of Christmas at the Local, Miss Richfield 1981: Cancel Cultured Christmas Pearls, Les Misérables, Beauty and the Beast, Nicholas, A Count Up to Christmas, and Striking 12

Julius Collins, Jennifer Grimm, Jason Ballweber
Photo by Tom Wallace
Holidate is this year's holiday season offering at Yellow Tree Theatre, written by Yellow Tree's artistic director, Austene Van. It was originally produced under the title Hot Chocolate and presented in 2011 at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul. At Yellow Tree it is a departure from the string of small-town themed Christmas plays by co-founder and former artistic director, Jessica Lind Peterson: Miracle on Christmas Lake, A Hunting Shack Christmas, A Gone Fishing Christmas and Another Miracle on Christmas Lake. Yellow Tree has switched gears to this comedy with music set in the heart of the city, which is established by Justin Hooper's eye-catching scenic background featuring an urban skyline shrouded in winter mist and bearing a resemblance to illustrations common to The New Yorker magazine.

Holidate casts light on the way family traditions bring meaning to Christmas, and the challenge of two adults in a relationship deciding it's time to face their families' traditions as a couple. It also gives voice to the things of real value, beyond extravagant gift-giving, that give the season meaning. The play, about ninety minutes without an intermission, begins with an unnamed street musician (Jason Ballweber) setting up his spot to entertain–and occasionally enlighten–passersby in a small park, with benches where shoppers can pause to enjoy the sights and sounds of the city. Taylor (Jennifer Grimm) and Michael (Julius Collins) burst in, their arms laden with bags that indicate they have been doing some serious Christmas shopping.

We learn that Michael was not keen for this shopping expedition, but he agreed (or was coerced, depending on whose version we believe) to go with Taylor to pick up a "few things." Now, six hours later, they are finally calling it quits. Though they have been seeing each other for three years, till now, they parted at Christmas to each spend the holiday with their own family. This year they decided they will be together, joining both families as a couple. It feels like a big step in the progress of their relationship. Taylor asserts more than once that it would be a bigger step if she were showing up with a diamond on her ring finger, though Michael seems insulated from these remarks.

Regardless, Taylor is very concerned that she pick out the right gift for each of Michael's family members, to make a winning impression on them. Discussions ensue about whether it's the thought or the cost of the gift that matters, among other topics. They have plenty of time for conversation when Michael discovers that he left his car keys in one of the shops. Retracing his steps to retrieve them is not an option, as the shops are all closing.

Michael calls his sister to pick them up, but in the meantime, there is nothing to do but talk–and sing. Throughout their conversations, Taylor and Michael regularly break into songs of the season. In some cases, one of them sings to make a point or to amuse the other, at other times they sing together. Both Grimm and Collins have silky smooth voices that serve the music well. The street musician provides some of the musical accompaniment and sometimes gets involved in their conversation. Taylor and Michael also cut a few dance moves, with slick choreography by Van that doesn't try to pretend that this couple, caught in a slice of their life, are secretly professional dancers.

The songs (accompanied by prerecorded instrumental tracks) include both standard holiday tunes, like "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting)," and more recent holiday hits such as "All I Want for Christmas Is You" and "This Christmas," but leans most heavily on R&B-flavored Christmas fare, including a couple of James Brown songs that are likely less known by most of the Yellow Tree audience but add mightily to the atmosphere and to our sense of Michael and Taylor's world. There is also a medley of traditional carols, along with a truncated "Baby It's Cold Outside" that manages to avoid the song's ick factor. All of these are delivered with verve by these talented actors.

Julius Collins and Jennifer Grimm both come across as extremely likeable individuals, which they extend to their characters, and it feels like they make a good match together. As Michael, Collin takes a cooler, easygoing outlook on the proceedings, but there is never a doubt that he is invested in the outcome. Grimm draws upon Taylor's nervousness, with a shade of insecurity about how things will go–both with their families and with Michael–but at the same time, she is clearly sure in herself and not about to accept less than she deserves. One really refreshing thing about Holidate is that, while Michael and Taylor have their conflicts, they are both basically healthy, well-adjusted people who are not carrying a heavy load of baggage that weighs down their relationship. That feels like a rarity in popular narratives, be they on page, stage or screen.

The role of the Street Musician is a little harder to pin down. Throughout most of the play, I was asking myself, "Why is he there?" Yes, he provides the source of some music, and engages in some comically weird interactions with the lovers. Fortunately, Jason Ballweber has strong comic chops and can pull this kind of thing off, but the character never feels connected to the narrative. Then, nearing the play's end, he offers an opinion that may alter the course of events and at that point redeems himself, though there are certainly other ways to come to the same end.

Marci Lucht's direction seems focused on allowing the two main characters to behave exactly as two people at this point in a relationship and in this predicament would behave, without a trace of artifice. Nothing happens or is said that would make one think "this only happens in plays, or in movies." That is a testament to the caliber of Lucht's direction as well as playwright Van's script. Design and tech elements are all first rate.

If anything feels amiss in Holidate, it is the vision of people gathering armfuls of Christmas packages by shopping downtown. One wonders which downtown that is, as downtown Minneapolis continues to lose retail business with the closing of Marshall's announced just this week. And yet, the play feels much more accessible than if it were set in a shopping mall. Would Taylor and Michael have felt as free to have their lively, sometimes heated, exchange, to say nothing of singing and dancing, in an enclosed mall? I think not. So, perhaps the fantasy element of Holidate is that we can step back to a time when city centers and not suburban malls were ground zero for the Christmas season.

That dose of fantasy, along with a realistic depiction of a couple finding their way over a major obstacle in their relationship, brimming with humor, heart and music, make Holidate a delightful entertainment for the holiday season.

Holidate runs through December 30, 2022, at Yellow Tree Theatre, 320 5th Ave SE, Osseo, MN. Tickets: $31.00 - $35.00; $3.00 per ticket discount for seniors (65+), students with valid ID, military personnel, and groups of ten or more. $15.00 rush seats go on sale the day of performance, pending availability. For information and tickets call 763-493-8733 or visit

Playwright: Austene Van Director: Marci Lucht; Set Design: Justin Hooper; Costume Designer: Edward Summers; Lighting Design: Tony Stoeri; Music Director/Sound Designer: Jeff Bailey; Props Design: Erika Soukup; Choreography: Austene Van; Stage Manager: Miranda Shunkwiler Assistant Stage Manager: Ruth Elkerton; Assistant Director: Valencia Proctor.

Cast: Jason Ballweber (Street Performer), Julius Collins (Michael), Jennifer Grimm (Taylor).