You’d have to be a mix of pre-conversion Scrooge and Grinch to not feel your heart warmed by the ecstatic joy of Nashville Children’s Theatre’s world premiere “Auntie Claus” musical.
The acclaimed children’s book character, her family and friends are exuberantly alive on the NCT stage thanks to Marcy Heisler (book and lyrics), Zina Goldrich (music), and show director/choreographer (and NCT Executive Artistic Director) Ernie Nolan, as well as a supremely talented ensemble onstage and off.
“Auntie Claus” author Elise Primavera has described the title character as “a cross between Coco Chanel and Auntie Mame with a little Mary Poppins thrown in.” Good fortune has long smiled on any production with Megan Murphy Chambers in it, and the tremendous triple-threat performer is perfectly cast as the flamboyant doyenne of NYC’s Bing Cherry Hotel.
Before proceeding with more of the review, a little background for the uninitiated is appropriate: the character Chambers plays resides in Penthouse 25C of the aforementioned hotel, and in dress, manner and habits has taken the Dickensian admonition to honor Christmas in her heart and keep it all the year. Her somewhat willful great-niece Sophie Kringle (Rebecca Keeshin) finds her behavior, and that “business trip” she always takes during the holidays, to be (using Sophie’s terminology) “mysterioso.” She decides to uncover the truth…
Court Watson’s enchanting wintry holiday wonderland of a set (see the Reed Hummell pictures that accompany this review) frames this magical musical, where the fun of Heisler’s sweet, smart but never too syrupy lyrics and Goldrich’s shimmering score plant us firmly in the “Auntie Claus” world from the very start with the company explaining “Christmas in New York” and then noting that “There’s Something about the Kringles.” I’m not surprised that among their credits are original songs for The Disney Channel, Disney Interactive and Feature Animation projects as well as Disney Theatricals; the delight I had hearing their songs and music was like listening to Howard Ashman and Alan Menken (“The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast”) at their very best.
Nolan’s blocking, pacing and song-specific choreography make this well-structured piece sail like a fast, sleek clipper ship on a silver sea. There are plenty of highlights in this hour-long extravaganza, but his electric staging of the “Live From New York, It’s Auntie!” number was one giddy experience among many for this boy-at-heart.
From her dazzling entrance to entertaining moments in “It’s Better to Give” and other numbers Chambers is at her Broadway-belting best. Since I first saw her in Boiler Room Theatre’s 2003 production of “Guys and Dolls” I’ve known I’d never see anyone, anywhere, whose timing, singing, movement and acting choices is any better than hers. No matter how many times one’s seen her, every appearance she makes onstage is a great gift.
The breadth and depth of Keeshin’s performance is no less impressive. Her character’s life-lesson arc is completely believable, and the rich emotional palette she paints in such numbers as “What is This Feeling?” and “The Land of the BB and G” along with her rousing work in songs like “We’re All Instrumental” and “Wrap It Up!” makes us root for Sophie as she learns to care about more than herself.
Chambers and Keeshin’s castmates provide plenty of good cheer and terrific performances as well. It’s a great mix of new and familiar faces in the ensemble Nolan has assembled – Jack Tanzi, Meggan Utech, Sawyer Wallace, Darci Wantiez, Abe Reybold, Melissa Tormene, Sarah Michele Bailey, Rona Carter, Hannah Clark, Treston Henderson, Jonathan Killebrew, Alex Pinerio, David Stobbe and Imari Thompson each give us multiple roles that are clearly depicted and entertainingly presented in moments big and small (including, but not limited to, the previously mentioned numbers and “Seventeen Days ‘Til Christmas”).
Nashville Children’s Theatre Orchestra under the direction of David Weinstein plays the score superbly. Along with Weinstein (on one of two keyboards in the pit) and music assistant Nathan Healy kudos go to Kelsi Fulton (keyboard), Zak Kuhn (acoustic and electric guitar) and Daniel Koslowski (drums, percussion).
In addition to the magic of Watson’s set (constructed by Anna Biggerstaff, Joe Mobley and Pete Nugnis along with master electrician/carpenter Taylor Thomas) and his terrific costumes (in concert with wardrobe supervisor Hillary Frame and costume shop manager Alarie Hammock) we have the graceful precision of Scott Leathers’ lighting, David Wright’s crystal-clear sound aided by audio engineer Joshua Bennett and the contributions of charge artist/props master Morgan Major-Pfendler. Rounding out the list of these more-than-proficient professionals are stage manager Teresa Driver, assistant stage manager Preston Perrin, director of production Rachael Silverman, technical director Wes Smith, and production assistant Kate Prosser.
With such a splendid show (to borrow from one of its song titles) I can’t wait for Christmas! The 1999 book upon which it’s based was geared for the very young, but this “Auntie Claus” is a musical for children of all ages. Thanks for the gorgeous, glittering gift, NCT!
“Auntie Claus” continues it world premiere run through Dec. 29 at Nashville Children’s Theatre (located at 25 Middleton St.). Click here for the public performance schedule and to buy tickets. For additional information about this production and its related events click here.