Fort Worth — Good children’s theater is hard to come by—how do you appeal to both kids and adults without talking down to one contingent or going over the heads of the other? It’s a tricky balancing act, but Casa Mañana Children’s Theatre’s festive trifle ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas mostly manages to keep its footing, with a few wobbles.
It’s Christmas Eve and Santa has a problem. He’s just received a letter from a little girl in New York City who wants something for Christmas that Santa just can’t deliver. Before you ask, no—it isn’t a pony (they have a policy for that in the North Pole). No, little Molly Midkiff (Maddox Rogers) wants her soldier father (Michael Isaac) home from overseas for Christmas. What with it being Christmas Eve, Santa already has a lot of cookies on his plate, so he delegates this tough assignment to his trusty elves Jingle (Laura Wetsel) and Jangle (Emily J. Pace). Armed with Magic Christmas Dust and one of the backup reindeer, Jingle and Jangle hightail it to NYC to make sure that Molly has the best Christmas ever. But they aren’t the only ones trying to cheer Molly up—her mother, Mary (Laura Lyman Payne), is whisking Molly around the city on a Christmas-themed scavenger hunt, creating Christmas memories to share with her father. Unbeknownst to Molly and Mary, Jingle and Jangle are working behind the scenes to help spread the Christmas cheer, with help from some of the locals, including the nattily-dressed Uptown Santa (Winston Daniels), a Macy’s Department Store elf named chestnut (Mark Quach), and a quartet of enchanted singing construction workers, among others. But can Mary and the elves really make Molly’s Christmas dreams come true?
Tight choreography, an evocative set, some truly excellent voices, and a great deal of enthusiasm combine to push the story forward and keep the audience engaged. The show, commissioned by Casa Mañana from longtime collaborator and former Resident Director and Director of Theatre for Youth Joe Sturgeon—who directs this production—has a sweet message and a heartwarming ending (do I even need to lay it out for you?), though the humor was perhaps better suited towards kids on the older end of the spectrum than the many very young kids in the audience on opening night.
Most of the songs, barring a few old classics, were pop parodies, whose success onstage varied. A rendition of Bruno Mars’ “You Can Count On Me” sung by Molly and her “Strawberry” girls’ troop (NOT the Girl Scouts, they are quick to clarify) at a local nursing home was a lovely showcase for some of the show’s young talent, and worked well within the story; the “Moves Like Jagger” parody “Moves Like Santa,” performed not once, but twice within the show, was somewhat less successful. But the cast propels the show forward so successfully, it’s difficult to begrudge the show’s low moments. There wasn’t a weak link in the entire cast with regard to choreography, and some fantastic vocal efforts from particular actors, notably Michael Isaac as Molly’s father (who I was pleased got more stage time as one of the singing construction workers) and Winston Daniels as Uptown Santa, whose performance (with the aforementioned construction workers) of “Angels We Have Heard on High” was a high point of the first act. Wetsel and Pace’s elf duo had a loose, shaggy comedic chemistry, with Pace’s high-energy, distractible Jangle bouncing off Wetsel’s straight-laced, goal-oriented Jingle. And Laura Lyman Payne brought some real pathos to her role as Molly’s mother, grounding the show’s emotional stakes nicely.
The set (by scenic designer Mike Sabourin) is less over-the-top than one might anticipate for such a festive piece. The stage, framed by a red ribbon tied in a bow, is flanked by two brownstones, and the backdrop is a view of the city skyline, with some excellent changes to the lighting based on the time of day within the show (lighting design by David Neville). The costumes (designed by Tammy Spencer) are also more restrained than one might anticipate for a children’s Christmas show, with the notable exception of Jingle and Jangle, whose color-reversed elf costumes are a beautifully designed splash of Christmas cheer against the more reality-based clothing worn by the rest of the cast as average New Yorkers, and the lovely showgirl costumes worn by the show’s briefly seen Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. And, in what’s becoming something of a rarity in musical theater these days it seems, the show’s technical team did a lovely job of keeping the music from overwhelming the cast’s voices (kudos to music director Chris Widomski and sound designer Eric Norris).
All in all, a fast-paced, light show with a sweet message. So, don ye now your gay apparel and bring the whole family to Casa Mañana for this frothy bit of Christmas fun.