As if you haven't realized it, just walk down the aisles of Walgreen's or spy the house on Waugh that's festooned in multicolored holiday lights, and you'll know the season of Christmas is fast upon us. Next year, I swear, there will be no pumpkins on any front porch during Halloween, only inflatable Santas and Charlie Browns.
Christmas arrives sooner every year, and the Houston theater season is no exception. Both Main Street Theater and Stages Repertory Theatre opened their holiday productions this last weekend (November 10), so Christmas is officially here. It's not even Thanksgiving. Maybe we can blame Harvey for the preternatural shove toward celebration.
I, for one, relish the rush. I want peace on earth and good will toward men, and whatever gets us there sooner rather than later is all right by me.
I'm not sure Stages' A Midnight Clear: A Musical Tale of Christmas gets us anywhere. This world premiere by artistic director Kenn McLaughlin (direction and book) and David Nehls (original music and lyrics) is like some unholy amalgam of M. Night Shyamalan and The Singing Nun.
Exceptionally produced and beautifully sung, this semi-jukebox musical comprises traditional carols (“Silent Night,” “What Child Is This,” “Good King Wenceslas,” “I Saw Three Ships”) and Nehls' anodyne Broadway tunes (“A Joyful Christmas Noise,” “St. Christopher's Prayer,” “Eyes of a Wandering Stranger”). The mix between hallowed and new isn't as weird as it sounds, it's the story that's odd and leaves us scratching our head.
I realize the original Christmas story, part of the “greatest story ever told,” is replete with miracle and mystery, but A Midnight Clear is muddled and mirthless.
As Sister Bernadette, Caroline Johnson, last year's Houston Theater Award-winning Best Actress for Stages' Luna Gale, does everything within her theatrical power to provide character and a comedy through-line. “I'm the fun one,” she announces, but what can she do when thrust against this weird Twilight Zone episode? In the glow of candlelight, her compelling “What's Meant to Be,” the story of her life, is terribly heartbreaking, but to no avail. It's just another plot point.
Not one of the actors manages to overcome a story that announces its intentions halfway through. In true conscience, I cannot reveal the reveal, that's like giving away the ending of Psycho, but what kind of supernatural Christmas message is this? What are the authors trying to say?
The whole affair is padded and pumped, running two hours-plus with intermission. Has anyone offered a red pencil to the creators, who seem to be in love with every minute? It takes precious stage minutes to get into the story, and, once there, there are empty spaces that cry to be excised. One, among many, is when the three sisters receive a radio message from a woman in dire straits, stranded in a blizzard. Do they rush outside to look for her? No. First, they sing, then they look.
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The cast is first-rate, no doubt about that. Although some of the sister's a capella singing veers a bit fuzzy, the trio blends comedy and drama with infectious camaraderie. The audience goes with them no matter where. Megan Van De Hey, as Sister Agnes, the mother superior, possesses a honeyed mesmerizing mezzo, and her “O Holy Night” is a highlight of the evening. She's stern and intractable, yet boogies down the aisle in “A Joyful Christmas Noise.” Kelley Peters, as Sister Ananias, nun in training, has a roof-piercing soprano that complements her youthful enthusiasm, but when a distress call comes in over the radio, she panics and gives the reins to the only male in sight. Aren't these women strong enough to push a button?
When damaged vagabond Ray (Brad Goertz) stumbles into the rural Ohio sanctuary, we hope this fox might upset the hen house, but, have no fear, this guy's only what he says he is: just travelin' through. (I'm not at liberty to say where he's travelin' to.) Goertz's sweet tenor is a plus no matter where his character goes. When Emily (Kristen Warren) shows up, rescued from the storm, sparks fly between them. No surprise, but she and Ray are destined for each other.
A world premiere created in Houston is always cause for cheer, and there's much in this show to celebrate and glorify. There's also much to be pared. Editing's a wonderful thing. It's often the difference between heaven and hell.
A Midnight Clear continues through December 24 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For information, call 713-527-0123 or visit stagestheatre.com. $25 to $63.