You can start kicking yourself now.
Those of you who found yourselves unable to make it to Portland to see The Christmas Bride missed a fantastic, moving production, directed with pace and acumen by Al D’Andrea. Of course, you can consider the source and assume I’m biased because I wrote the lyrics, music and the fantastically effective new orchestration. But I pity the fools who recently sought good musical theatre in its traditional breeding ground, New York, New York.
(You might have been stuck at Bonnie and Clyde, Lysistrata Jones or the wacked-out overhaul of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.) This past week, a well-wrought show’s shooting stars fell plainly on the Maine.
Let’s start with the girl of the title. Marissa Sheltra is an ingenue with such spine, you can’t help instantly falling in love with her (just like most of the male characters). She’s got such life to her, such a way with MK Wolfe’s dialogue, that you look forward to seeing what will happen with her in each scene. And care what’s going to happen to her, which is the most important thing of all. (Many a troubled tuner is brought down by the audience not caring about people’s plights.) Feisty and fun, rarely at rest, the performance has a wondrous arc to it, as Sheltra’s physicality evolves from the girlishness of the first scenes to the assertiveness that blooms at the piece’s climax.
The men who love her include Brian McAloon, who undergoes a different maturing process, coming to take responsibility for the first time in his life. His face conveys swagger, boasts, the inexorable pull of a gambling addiction, lust and the sort of love that understands the importance of commitment. His dulcet baritone combines beautifully on his duets with Sheltra, blending – never overpowering, and also with romantic rival Fran Page. In previous productions, the character of Alfred Heathfield felt a bit too bumpkin-like to be true. But you might say Page wrote the book on how to play this comically earnest bumbler. The audience cares about him as never before.
Besides the fascination of seeing characters evolve, there’s also the tour-de-force of seeing actors play more than one character. Bill Vaughan plays twin brothers: one who’s mild-mannered and avuncular, the other evil, powerful and charming. MK Wolfe’s script has fun with the two characters appearing in the same scene, seconds apart. This is quite a quick-change trick but here the characters were so distinct, I don’t think anyone in the audience knew they were the same actor. In fact, an audience member was heard to complain that it was unfair the policemen didn’t get a curtain call. David Arthur Bachrach’s characters don’t appear so close together in time, but he transformed himself from an upright fuddy-duddy to a (literally) twisted drunken lech. Intelligence poured out of him as one character, while as the other, you could constantly see the wheels in his head rolling, trying to figure things out.
So of course I eavesdropped on the audience at the three sold-out performances I was able to attend. At the end of Act One, someone exclaimed “What’s going to happen next?” This thrilled me, because keeping the audience guessing, and caring, is the high watermark of theatre. You have to get them to ask questions, and here some stranger was articulating suspense out loud. People loved the singing, and I take particular pride in their enjoyment of my new orchestrations. There are many songs in The Christmas Bride, and I managed to give each a distinct sonic color.
Like a very large percentage of my musicals, the production turned a profit. I met people who’d flown up to see it from New York and Connecticut – three states away, if I’ve read my map right. But you who didn’t make it are saddled with the regret of missing it. So, get The Christmas Bride to a theatre near you by convincing local powers-that-be audiences crave a rapturous Dickensian romance. And, certainly, don’t take my word for it; click here to read the review in Portland’s largest newspaper.