You have to hand it over to creative artists who take on the thankless task of creating new holiday musicals. Let’s face it, we all grew up with the classic songs of the season and they are now part of our collective DNA. From the tearful “White Christmas” by Irving Berlin to the irresistible rhythm of the “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen / We Three Kings” mash-up by Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan, and “Let It Snow” by Boyz II Men at the frontier interpretation pornographic “Santa Baby” by Eartha Kitt, the holidays bathed in incredible music.
So, hats off to the Cleveland Play House and playwrights / songwriters Jason Michael Webb and Lelund Durond Thompson for trying to create a new holiday musical, LIGHT IT UP, which clearly wants to celebrate love, togetherness and joy. The 100 minute act employs a variety of musical styles – pop, jazz, gospel, etc.
Problem is, the story is as thin and insignificant as $ 3 an hour to rent from Santa Claus, and the overall tone of the production swings somewhere between a show and a fourth-grade narrative and a special. Andy Williams’ 1960s Christmas. It all takes place at (you will never guess) Tinselville, a happy place where happy people are happy to share their happiness with others who are … happy. And the character cast includes shredders named Holly Daye, Ginger Snap, Candie Canemaker, Juniper Green, and Orna Mint. It’s so twee that it makes you want to kill yourself with eggnog.
In the program’s introductory notes, CPH states that LIGHT IT UP is “a contemporary inclusive vacation story told through music and storytelling.” This commentary, while less than elegant in terms of syntax, indicates that the point is to tell a story. But this is belied by the absence of a vital part of any story: the conflict. Perhaps the goal, in this horrific time of a long and persistent pandemic, was to focus only on love and kindness. Well, love and kindness doesn’t make a very good story, and that’s what we have here, with no Grinch or Abominable Snow Monster in sight.
The production is segmented into over 20 distinct scenes, and great care is taken to ensure that each holiday icon box is checked: The Nutcracker, check. Scrooge (the adorable version), check it out. Rodolphe, check it out. Hanukkah, check it out. Kwanzaa, check it out. Even Santa Lucia, Cinderella, and Donations for the Unhoused are drawn into the fray. Jesus! (Yes, he, too, checks.)
There are a few gestures of humor, with Orna Mint singing an R&B Christmas song, then trying to perform James Brown’s cape schtick where he sings his heart out, is wrapped in a cape and almost helped to step out of the stage until he comes alive and comes back to shred his lungs some more. But this piece requires going to the bottom, and this pale attempt does not serve as a humorous parody or a sincere tribute to this star.
A game show takeoff, with audience participation, also falls flat. During this performance, the only funny line came involuntarily from audience participant Sarah, who said she enjoys traveling everywhere. Host Holly Daye (Terica Marie) asked her where she had been on her last trip and Sarah replied, “Lancaster, Pennsylvania”. The biggest laugh of the evening.
Indeed, this show is also meant to travel everywhere and reach everyone, but it continues to end in Lancaster, PA. There are good to great voices throughout the ten-person cast, but they are continually undermined by numerous lyrics from Webb and Thompson, interspersed with prosaic rhyming patterns.
The most successful song in the series is “Come On Home”, a rich R&B anthem sung by the only character with a recognizable human name, Marsha Strivers. It is addressed to her soldier-serving husband in the Middle East and is sung with genuine passion and skill by Marianna Whyte as Marsha. But it is undermined by a clumsy staging that does not capture the desired emotion.
Many of the show’s shortcomings lie with director and choreographer Christopher Windom, who never manages to encourage his players to take risks with bland material. Somehow, these ten actors, along with five band members who interact from time to time, remain anonymous numbers as they slowly sink into the soggy script.
Everything revolves around the lighting of the Tinselville tree. Wow! Is it a giant 25ft tree appearing in a puff of smoke, laden with colorful lights that blast the delighted audience while paying for the theme of light in dark places? Well no. It turns out it’s a ten foot tree, unrolled on a four foot table. And when its tiny lights are on, you can barely tell the difference.
All in all, it’s a fitting finale to a show that chokes on too much forced frivolity when a little more sincere heart would have helped.
Through December 22 at the Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, Allen Theater, 1407 Euclid Ave., clevelandplayhouse.com, 216-241-6000.