Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of The Holiday Pageant
Each year, when the calendar turns to December, a sleigh-full of entertainments appear, geared at observing the holiday season, a season that strives to end the year, however fraught it has been, on an upbeat, celebratory note. Everything seems crammed into those closing weeks of the annum: the economy depends heavily on gift-giving purchases; many workers count on a Christmas bonus to pay for an extra comfort or two, or just to close out the year in the black; non-profits solicit year-end donations in order to fulfill their mission; and people send out piles of cards and letters to stay in touch with family and friends they have not heard a peep from since the last holiday season.
The performing arts, too, put a lot of stock in holiday love to draw audiences hungry for Christmassy entertainment. For some theater companies, a robust Christmas Carol, A Christmas Story, or It's a Wonderful Life helps meet expenses for the rest of their season. This has led to a cottage industry of creating new fare to fill the seats of playhouses in December. Among these, Jessica Lind Peterson has been remarkably prolific, starting with her popular comedy Miracle on Christmas Lake, followed by Another Miracle on Christmas Lake, A Hunting Shack Christmas, and A Gone Fishin' Christmas. Last weekend I had my first taste of her Christmas craft with Actors Theater of Minnesota's production of Miracle on Christmas Lake. The raucous humor and abundant good will on stage made me look forward to seeing more of Peterson's yuletide comedies.
Miracle on Christmas Lake premiered at Yellow Tree Theatre, where Peterson is co-founder and playwright in residence, in 2008 and has been remounted, on rotation with her other Christmas themed plays, over the years since. The play is set in a fictional small Minnesota town named Christmas Lake, so by virtue of geography alone, the play is tied to the season. Native son Colin Avery is a successful New York actor with a running part in a soap opera ("As Time Ticks By"), but gives it all up and returns to Christmas Lake, his skeptical wife Tess in tow, when his late father bequeaths Colin the community theater he operated for years. Living in his mother's basement, Colin and Tess invest everything they have in restoring the old theater and are about to relaunch it with a holiday bonanza, the stage version of It's a Wonderful Life. They are banking on the production to convince Christmas Lake's principal philanthropist, Mrs. Burlington, to write a large check to support the theater, as she had for many years when Colin's father ran it. Sounds like a reasonable business plan, right?
Not in the universe of madcap comedies, to which Miracle on Christmas Lake belongs. The day before the show's opening, rights to It's a Wonderful Life are pulled. There's to be a new Broadway production, so all other theaters have the property yanked from under them (and this was written before the Scott Rudin and To Kill a Mockingbird debacle). Undaunted, Colin believes they can create their own show during an overnight emergency rehearsal. Unfortunately, the only cast member available for an overnight rehearsal is the singularly weird Martha Knutson. How weird? For starters, she brings her pet bearded dragon to rehearsals, in a shoe-boxand you just know that will result in some hijinks. Piano tuner Neil Gunderson comes by and is recruited, despite his utter lack of talent. Mrs. Burlington, with a past career in a type of show business, finagles herself into the show as well, the better to satisfy her lustful designs on Colin. The makings of a disaster are all in place.
The second act of Miracle on Christmas Lake is based on the old trope of a dysfunctional theater troupe doing everything wrong. Think of the third act of Noises Off or any part of The Play That Goes Wrong and you'll get the idea. Given the familiar premise, Peterson has written a very funny script with no shortage of jokes about lutefisk and other Minnesota-specific targets. Director John Haynes keeps the action moving at a fast clip, with little downtime between laughs. Colin plays the straight man to the three zanies and to Tess, comically uncomfortable as a Columbian house maid. The mayhem on stage brings the Christmas Lake Community Theater down in flames, but keeps the real audience, as the song goes, "laughing all the way."
Then comes the miracle. If you can't guess what it is, I won't ruin the surprise, but trust me, nothing terribly unpredictable happens here. Nor does that matter. The sketches on the old "Carol Burnett Show" were largely predictable and they were comedy gold. What does matter is that Miracle on Christmas Lake ends with a large ladle of warmth and a certainty that for, the true believer, hope will be rewarded. Whether or not there is any evidence of this in real life, it is pretty much required of any entertainment seeking its Christmas credentials.
It takes nimble actors to make this kind of fast-paced comedy, balancing word play with pratfalls, turn out whole, and Actors Theater has found a solid cast. As Colin, Christian LaBissoniere provides the solid footing of an idealist who manages to be the levelheaded center of the action. When he thinks hope is lost, we do feel for him, because of the sincerity of his efforts to seize the day. Marci Lucht plays Tess, the city fish out of water, with a strong scent of urbanized sarcasm, but still carrying affection for her country-loving husband.
Fjaere Harder Nussbaum as Martha, and Michael Ooms as Neil play their characters way over the top, which exactly fits the occasion. Ooms is especially hilarious explaining that he will, if he absolutely must, remove his shirt in service to artsomething no one is asking for. Versatile actor Charla Marie Bailey is cast as both Colin's nurturing mother and vamping Mrs. Burlington, more successful as the latter when she is able to pull out all the stops in a full-throttle comic turn.
The set is minimal, given Camp Bar Cabaret Theater's matchbook-sized stage, but Seri Johnson, working with Smile Life Productions, has put together some hilarious costumes that lampoon, first the small-town characters in act one, and then the faux sophisticates of the play-within-a-play in act two. Lighting and sound design by Cody Biggerstaff contribute to the merriment on stage.
There are Christmas shows that aim to inspire, to enlighten, and feed the spirit of awe and wonder. There are Christmas musicals that lift our spirits with rousing song and dance, whether drawing on the familiar treasury of holiday music or an original score, making sure that artificial snow falls at least once. Miracle on Christmas Lake is neither of these. It is a little bawdy in places, and plays into stereotypes of outstate Minnesotan eccentricities and accentsbut it is harmless, crafted with wit and affection. It uses the goodwill of the holiday season to disarm us and allow us to laugh freely, innocently and plentifully, thus honoring the Christmas admonition "Be of good cheer." I'll drink to that, you betcha.
Miracle on Christmas Lake, Actors Theater of Minnesota, runs through December 28, 2019, at Camp Bar Cabaret Theater, 490 North Robert Street, St. Paul MN. Tickets: $29.50 - $39.50. For information and tickets, visit actorsmn.org or call 800-838-3006.
Playwright: Jessica Lind Peterson; Director: John Haynes; Costume Design: Seri Johnson/Smile Life Productions; Light and Sound Design: Cody Biggerstaff; Stage Manager: Katie McLean.
Cast: Charla Marie Bailey (Gloria/Mrs. Davenport), Christian LaBissoneire (Colin), Marci Lucht (Tess), Fjaere Harder Nussbaum (Martha), Michael Ooms (Neil).