‘Tis the season for tinsel and duplicity. Liz Lane, the Smart Housekeeping magazine’s most popular columnist, worries that the ruse she has kept up for more than a year is about to unravel at a Connecticut farm. Everything she wrote about cooking, her husband and a baby is fiction. Sensing just how close the truth is about to be revealed, her uncle Felix Bassenak temporarily saves the moment with his own fabrication — a “Hungarian tradition” of tossing tree ornaments to each other.
Closing the first act of the new musical Christmas in Connecticut, The Ornament Song is a jaunty vaudevillian hoot, set to music that echoes the Klezmer band sound. Indeed, it foreshadows the incredible juggling act Liz (Alyse Alan Louis) is about to perform in the second act, especially now that Gladys Higgenbottom (Tiffany Denise Hobbs), the magazine’s unfailingly scrupulous fact checker, has arrived for the holiday gathering.
The Pioneer Theatre Company (PTC)‘s production of Christmas in Connecticut, based on the 1945 Warner Bros. film of the same title and starring Barbara Stanwyck, is more than a flattering homage to its original source. In fact, a few new characters and some contemporary nuances penned by writers Patrick Pacheco and Erik Forrest Jackson sufficiently bulk up the narrative heart of the film’s original screenplay.
The show is crisply paced with heaping servings of zany comedy along with intelligent, heartwarming songs and lyrics (courtesy of the efforts by composer Jason Howland and lyricist Amanda Yesnowitz). Christmas in Connecticut, directed by Shelley Butler, hits on every note and line of dialogue, to secure its place in the canon of beloved holiday theater traditions.
As noted in The Utah Review preview, Christmas in Connecticut received its world premiere last year at the Goodspeed in Hartford, Connecticut. With notes from that premiere, Pacheco and Jackson polished and honed the musical for the PTC production, which is the only one being staged in the U.S. this year. Certainly, the updated show packs a lot more oomph and gifts than the Christmas crackers seen at holiday tables. The exposition bristles at the right tempo so that the cast gets to the site of the show’s zaniest moments well before the end of Act I: the Connecticut farm where Liz Lane and her editor Dudley Beecham, aided by a few others, hope to protect her actual persona from being revealed.
Set in the middle years of World War II, the show opens with Liz Sandor (Alyce Alan Louis), a struggling writer who faces eviction from her New York City apartment and relies on the graces of her uncle Felix (David Girolmo) to keep her fed with food from his restaurant. Liz envisions herself as a vanguard of independent career-minded women. She shares the socialist values of Victor Beecham, whom she encounters on the streets of Manhattan when he is trying to unionize department store Santas. The entrance of Victor (Eric William Morris), one of the story’s new characters, is smart foreshadowing for the love triangle that Liz will be challenged to juggle nimbly later in the show.
Liz meets Dudley Beecham (RJ Vaillancourt), Smart Magazine’s editor, at Felix’s restaurant. She pitches writing a regular column about the independent woman and career possibilities. Later, the publisher Alexander Yardley (Gerry McIntyre), whose only true love appears to be food, is impressed by her writing talents. But, he prefers a column extolling the virtues of the perfect homemaker who excels at cooking and other domestic tasks. Tempted by offers of a generous and steady income, Liz accepts. She drops her Sandor surname and takes on the alt-persona of Liz Lane. She plans on keeping the gig for a year and then moving onto her real inspirations for writing.
Liz’s column is a smashing success. But, things rapidly become complicated when news arrives that Jefferson Jones (Christian Magby), a war hero who was injured in combat, is one of her biggest fans. Unaware that she is not a skilled homemaker, Yardley insists that Liz cook Christmas dinner for Jones. The PR stunt could make Liz more famous than Betty Crocker. Meanwhile, Dudley, the editor who is in on the ruse, is a skittish mess. As we discover later, he also has more than one secret to protect.
When the show gallops into the gorgeously constructed farmhouse scene, the high stakes comedy percolates just as quickly. Every scene in the rest of the show teeters on the edge of humiliation and disaster. It becomes clear that Liz is good only at making postprandial cocktails. Victor is livid and shocked when he finds out that his pretend spouse is Liz and that she has sold out for the sake of capitalism. He knows nothing about carving the Christmas goose and grouses about cutting down a tree for decorating. Jefferson, who worries about revealing the circumstances of how he came to be a war hero, knows how to calm a crying baby. And while he admires Liz, he finds himself just as attracted to Gladys, another new character in the Christmas in Connecticut narrative that Pacheco and Jackson adapted.
Victor is Dudley’s brother and the resolute socialist begrudgingly agrees to play the role of husband, mainly because Dudley holds the deed to the farmhouse, which Victor maintains and uses to support farm workers. Providing a generous serving of the show’s quirkiest humor, the housekeeper Norah O’Connor (Linda Mugleston) is scatterbrained, unlike the censorious character in the 1945 film. The appearance of Mario De Luca (Jamen Nanthakumar), the publisher’s driver, adds a pleasant, well-placed twist in Dudley’s story arc.
The cast performances and songs catapult the show into its finest territory. As Liz, Louis commands the spotlight from her opening number Tomorrow’s Woman to Recipe for Success near the end of the show. Yesnowitz’s lyrics channel Stanwyck’s Hollywood legacy as a bona fide feminist whose character portrayals persistently were smart and lucky enough to win their respective ways. In fact, the framing of Liz echoes the sentiment that Stanwyck explained about her own life growing up. This is prominent in a quote published in Victoria Wilson’s Steel-True, the first volume of the biography about the Hollywood star which was published in 2013: “But the women I knew did their plodding on the pavement, not the soil. I know very little about the simple life. I’m a product of crowded places and jammed-up emotions, where right and wrong weren’t always clearly defined and life wasn’t always sweet, but it was life.” This manifests clearly in the musical’s story arc and in Louis’ portrayal of the lead.
Magby interprets Jefferson with equal effect, as he wonders humbly if he truly deserves the spotlight as a war hero. His ballad The American Dream provides some of the show’s most moving emotional moments. Liz is unexpectedly touched, as she realizes how much her writing has generated such a profound impact. The small added stage gesture of a returning GI and his girlfriend being reunited is a fine bit of nostalgic history.
Remember What’s At Stake capitalizes nicely on the oil-and-water tensions between Victor and Liz. As infuriated as they are with each other, both realize that they are simpatico in many ways. Louis and Morris play the emotional counterpoints, with earnest conviction. Meanwhile, the four couples who eventually come together glide effortlessly along in Chemistry. Oblivious to the garden of romance that is blooming at the farmhouse, Yardley is happy enough to raid the refrigerator at midnight for a sandwich made with leftovers from the roast goose.
As Gladys, Hobbs is scintillating in Something’s Fishy, a sassy, jazzy number where the inveterate detective novel enthusiast quickly pieces the puzzle together. Thanks to an eight-piece pit conducted by Helen Gregory, Howland’s score and Yesnowitz’s lyrics gleam in a sound landscape that adroitly blends various elements including Sondheim-like musical sensibilities, jazz, Big Band and just the right pinch of seasonal vibes. The closing number May You Inherit contains a buoyant secular message that hits astutely for the contemporary conscience. Likewise, Karen Azenberg’s choreography, most evident in The Ornament Song, strikes the right chord, signaling the enormity of Liz’s juggling challenges to keep the ruse from collapsing.
At this stage of development, the show twinkles in excellence. Perhaps a bit more in examples of Liz’s awkward encounters with domesticity might be worth exploring. A good one already is in the show, when the Yule log dessert collides with Glady’s dress. The pacing is perfect: with a 15-minute intermission accounted for, the running time was barely two and a quarter hours.
With a tantalizing dash of sauciness to spice up its heartwarming flavors, Christmas in Connecticut merits being a featured entree on the holiday entertainment menu. Now, how about some turkey tetrazzini?
The run continues through Dec. 16. For tickets and more information, see the Pioneer Theatre Company website.