MATCHSTICK GIRL BY JENNIFER KOKAI AND KENNETH PLAIN: WEBER STATE THEATRE
There have been many adaptations of Hans Christian Andersen’s 19th century short folktale The Little Match Girl. Some have been faithful to the story of a young beggar who sells matchsticks on the streets of Copenhagen but on a bitterly cold New Year’s Eve she dies of hypothermia while being ignored by passers-by. Others have added their own twists, including changing the ending and circumstances, while either tying their treatments loosely or closely to the original. A French live action short film, for example, features the Virgin Mary, instead of the grandmother, as the match girl believes the figure is her own mother. An Academy-Award nominated animated short from 1937, Color Rhapsodies stays close to the original story, with some variations in the closing. The story also was the basis for a 1974 Christmas Eve television special set in Cincinnati, and starring Sarah Jessica Parker, then nine years old.
Joining this global canon of adaptations is Matchstick Girl, a new musical version that stays true to the story’s narrative contours but also fleshes out the characters in an elegantly enlightened discovery of social and moral conscience. Written by Jennifer Kokai with music and additional lyrics by Kenneth Plain, the production, directed by Andrew Barratt Lewis, is receiving a marvelous premiere at Weber State Theatre on the Weber State University campus in Ogden. Performances continue through March 4.
Matchstick Girl is a lyrical gem resplendent in its symbolic warmth and heart-rending poignance. This tightly written, crisply paced production (running just under 80 minutes without intermission) makes an excellent case for why this musical could become a refreshing alternative for community theater groups, schools and universities and other professional local theaters looking to mix up holiday programming, which usually is dominated by renditions of Dickens’ The Christmas Carol.
The musical structure is spot on, with the dialogue set-ups leading smoothly into the songs, which amplify the foreshadowing, character development and emotional tones of Sofia’s sorrowful story. Accompanied by a nine-piece pit orchestra, several of the songs excel in capturing hope and its fragility, particularly in the fantastical dreams Sofia experiences, as she succumbs to the effects of hypothermia. Just as effective is the choreography provided by Alicia Trump.
While the musical opens with a company number that is Dickensian in tone, the ensuing songs set up the scaffolding for the steady revealing of conscience. Johan (Taylor Garlick), 18, is the son in a wealthy family that is hosting an opulent New Year’s Eve party. He struggles at the cusp of adulthood, wondering how he can balance the expectations of his parents’ dictates with a growing awareness that his real mission is to be kind and conscientious to those who are much less fortunate. He recognizes Sofia (Jaden Chandie Nandkeshwar) in the street, whom he knew in his boyhood days when her father (Jacob Coates) worked on the estate but was later fired because of his alcoholism.
In the song A Kind Man, Johan sings about his dilemma: “My mother says I’m gentle but almost seems ashamed/My father says to be a man my position must be claimed/I want to be a person/Who others want to know not because of titles/But by what my actions show.” The lyrical ping-pong of the chorus is effective: “Tough strong soft kind/Kind strong soft tough/How to be the Johan that can ever be enough?/Kind strong soft tough/Tough strong soft kind/ How to be a man and leave the boy behind?” Garlick interprets the role with proper tone, evoking Johan’s inner conflict of having the confidence and resolve to do what he believes is right but also hesitating because he does not want to disappoint his family.
Garlick and Nandkeshwar give glowing performances in a song which captures one of the scenes of Sofia’s hypothermic delirium. In Marzipan Rings, Johan sings about how his favorite confection eased his discomfort at holiday parties when he truly felt alone and sad: “At my table/I would eat them in the chaos/All alone/And make wishes for the new year for new friends for I don’t know.” Sofia recognizes that he is sad but she wonders how he could be so when he is surrounded by everything that she only has dreamed of having. At the end of the song, Sofia realizes that it was just yet another scene of delirium: “Melts like snowflakes on your tongue/Disappearing/In a second/Like the lit match I am holding…”
Nandkeshwar is outstanding, and her voice shapes exquisitely the bridges in the show’s finest songs, which come through in the final scenes. The most moving song is The Threads of Love, when the vision of Clara (Demi Lamb), Sofia’s grandmother, appears. The song opens on warm memories of how the two enjoyed sewing and knitting but Sofia also turns bitter, singing, “Love is fleeting/Love is useless,” and “the threads all cut/the knots undone.” Clara’s response is striking in pitching the emotional climax that is about to come: “I never let you go/It’s true I had to leave you for a moment far too long/It’s true the world/Has made no space for you/My child you’ve done your best a lonely boat on the roiling sea/I’ve always been here with you helping to steer you more alee.”
Johan is riven by guilt and sorrow, when he discovers Sofia’s body on the morning of a new year’s beginning. Just as powerful in its poignance as its conscientiousness, Johan’s song (Resolution) delivers the epiphany, as the song closes with the lyrics: “Time rushes by fast/don’t dawdle and dither/only think and rehash/I resolve to keep faith/There is more I can be/My heart can keep changing like the blue Øresund Sea.”
Matchstick Girl delivers nicely on the spectrum of emotions expected from Andersen’s original but also extends them, thanks to Kokai’s lifelong connection to this story. The gravity of the main character’s story is suitably leavened with pops of holiday spirit, wit and mischief, especially in the character of Kirsten (Chelsea Christensen), who empathizes with Johan’s challenge of conscience.
As Kokai, a former Weber State University faculty member who now directs the School of Theatre and Dance at the University of South Florida, explains, the story is a “huge part of who I am.” She adds, it spans “from the jukebox musicals I wrote, directed, and choreographed as a little kid to the constant songs I make up and sing.”
There also was another musical, which emerged from Kokai’s direct experiences. Three years ago, Singing to the Brine Shrimp was premiered by Plan-B Theatre. In that show, she drew in part from her professional experiences in setting the story of Allison, a 35-year-old playwright from Utah who also works as an administrator for a nonprofit theater education organization. On one hand, Allison is excited by the prospects of gaining attention for her work at an event in New York City but her confidence also is rattled, when she meets the other playwrights and, especially, the director and cast selected to rehearse and perform her play. That production included sock puppets that precisely convey Kokai’s character descriptions including the group of playwrights whose success and peerage intimidate Allison as well as the director and actors who savage Allison’s script, which happens to include brine shrimp.
Meanwhile, in Matchstick Girl, Kokai and Plain offers audiences a personalized gift that is luminescent in its timely and timeless lesson for humanity. To wit: the show has been selected as a semi-finalist for the National Musical Theatre Conference with the O’Neill Center.
For more information about tickets for remaining performances, see the Weber State ticket page.
GO HOME COME BACK BY DARRYL STAMP: PLAN-B THEATRE
Darryl Stamp’s script for Go Home Come Back has a naturally warm grace and soul. At the first performance in a premiere production run by Plan-B Theatre, the cast did a superb job at bringing out the finest moments of humanity in their characters.
Lonzo Liggins renders Will perfectly, a sales manager who is supposed to be on his way to celebrate his wife’s birthday but he has a fatal accident because of distracted driving. Calbert Beck’s inspired performance as James, a demolition worker who is crushed by falling pieces of a collapsed building, sets a bar that future actors taking on the role will find difficult to beat.
As mentioned in a preview published at The Utah Review, their paths cross in the hereafter when they meet Llecenia (played by Kris Wing Peterson who absorbs all of the role’s fabulous possibilities), the global marketing manager who has come up with Go Home Come Back Day, complete with a no-souls-down payment feature. Because they “left too soon,” Will and James were randomly selected to see their loved ones again for an hour — an extraordinary opportunity to make things right. When the time expires, they are returned to the hereafter for their “final placement.”
Liggins and Beck evoke convincingly the sense of rushing furiously to make the best of whatever time they have left to prove their celestial worth. It was supposed to be Will’s day to celebrate his wife Janice’s birthday (played beautifully by Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin). As Will, Liggins makes a heroic effort, trying to find enough time for eating dinner together, dancing, love-making, celebrating with a cake and gardening. Meanwhile. James is trying to make amends with his daughter Monica (an exceptional performance by Melissa Salguero) at two separate moments in their lives, when she was 17 and participating in a science fair, and at 25, as an adult who has found her independence but who also would rather not deal with her father’s “rollercoaster” cycles of impulsive emotions.
Will and James are doing their damndest to make good on the precious yet very short opportunity they have but both also come within moments of violating the most important rule that Llecenia has reminded them not to break: they cannot let their loved ones know what is actually happening. Adding to the formalities of Llecenia’s work, the announcements in the celestial operations are offered in English and Spanish, courtesy of pre-recorded clips by actor Flo Bravo. The characters really nail the intricacies in Stamp’s script, especially the astute bits of foreshadowing that come through in the alternating scenes highlighting the experiences of Will and James. Salguero plays two characters – Monica and Viola – and these performances set up the play’s surprising and touching epiphanies.
Monica’s first appearance in the play is a flashback to when she was 17. James is late in attending her science fair and she is worried that she will be embarrassed by her father’s behavior. Her mother already had secured a restraining order against James. Monica is also concerned about what others might think about the makeshift appearance of her project, fashioned from sand, Legos and Jenga blocks held together by stir sticks and cocktail straws that James “got from a friend.”
In another scene, when she is 25, as his time is running out before he has to return for his “final placement,” James appears in the living room of Monica’s apartment. Monica is taken aback by his urgent tone, wondering if he is having another “rollercoaster day.” James would love to hear her say that she loves him for being “strong, courageous and protective.” While she initially says no because he was absent so much, she immediately corrects herself, mentioning that he reliably did manage to show up at some point, just as he did at her science fair. Is it enough for James, who has a habit of letting his mouth run too freely and abrasively, to redeem himself? Unlike Will, he is perhaps on shakier ground, given the decision to grant him a chance at Go Home Come Back was a surprise.
Salguero’s muse really comes through in Viola, a character that is the most enigmatic in the cast which Stamp has envisioned. Viola incidentally was the name of a beloved aunt for Stamp. Viola is the narrative fulcrum in Go Home Come Back. In his script, Stamp writes, “Violas can be annuals or perennials, persisting for several years, and they hybridize, creating offspring of parents that differ genetically. The best-known Viola species have heart-shaped leaves. As an instrument, the viola is closest in pitch to the human voice, creating a beautiful sound.”
Indeed, the entire cast creates many beautiful sounds. A paragon of gentle humanity, light-hearted wit, and the complexities of unconditional love, Go Home Come Back is a radiant tonic for the soul.
The run for the show, which ends March 5, is sold out but there is a waiting list for any last-minute ticket openings. For more information, see the Plan-B website.