Monday, December 5, 2016

"A Christmas Carole Petersen" by Theater Latte Da at the Ritz Theater

It's December in the Twin Cities, and that means there are a ton of holiday shows to choose from (Christmas sells well in Minnesota). I've seen six already, with six more on the schedule for the next few weeks (read about all of them here). And right smack dab in the middle of this holiday marathon comes one of my favorites of the past, Theater Latte Da's A Christmas Carole Petersen. After a successful nine-year run in the aughts, everyone's favorite Minnesota family the Petersens took an eight-year break, and are now making a welcome return this holiday season. I saw the show once near the end of its original run and was completely charmed by it, and am thrilled to see it again. Master storyteller Tod Petersen shares his unique family story and holiday traditions that may feel familiar to many Minnesotans. But even if your family traditions are different from the Petersens', even if you celebrate different holidays or no holidays, this show will make you nostalgic for the days of yore and grateful for the gifts of the present.

A Christmas Carole Petersen feels less like a performance, and more like sitting around the living room sharing stories and singing songs. Tod tells the stories, walking us through Christmases past and present and playing multiple characters including his parents, siblings, his younger self, and Ebeneezer Scrooge. Denise Prosek provides the piano accompaniment and musical direction. "Carolettes" Ryan Lee, Sara Ochs, and Dominique Wooten help out with both the storytelling and the singing. The Petersens, comprised of Tod, his older brother, two younger sisters, and their parents, are a typical Minnesotan Christmas-loving family, the kind of family that sends out annual family status letters with the Christmas cards, and goes caroling around their neighborhood. The show is a delightful string of funny and/or touching stories mixed with traditional and unfamiliar Christmas songs (and one original written by director Peter Rothstein and Denise Prosek) that's thoroughly entertaining, very relatable, and utterly charming. My only complaint about the show is that the intermission is superfluous, and if removed would make this a perfect and succinct 90-minute-no-intermission show.

Tod Petersen and the Carolettes (Sara Ochs, Ryan Lee,
and Dominique Wooten, photo by Emilee Elofson)
And now a word about this wonderful cast, all new to the show except for Tod. They all provide wonderful support and harmony, and each has their moment to shine. Ryan Lee (who also happens to be Tod's husband) shows off his multi-instrumental skills, and very prettily sings one of my favorite Christmas songs, "River." Dominique Wooten fairly brings the house down with his booming voice and stirring rendition of "Please, Come Home for Christmas." Sara Ochs is delightfully frazzled on "Christmas Eve," a song about the stresses of the holidays. And it's no surprise that Tod, who was such a charming host of Artistry's Drowsy Chaperone this summer, is an even more charming host when telling his own very personal story. His love for his family, despite his complicated feelings about Christmas, shine through in an honest and heartfelt performance. A Christmas Carole Petersen is a wonderful conclusion to his pretty fantastic and busy year.

Lately Theater Latte Da has made great use of the bones of the Ritz Theater, with sets that feel organic to the space and incorporate the mottled paint of the cement walls. Not so here. The stage looks like a shopping mall decorated for Christmas, in the best possible way. A proscenium set in the stage, with deep purple walls and red velvet curtains, a Christmas tree, presents, wreaths, and holly galore make this a very festive scene indeed. And scenic designer Michael Hoover also has a few surprises which I won't spoil for you here. Rich Hamson's costumes continue the rich winter jewel toned color scheme.

Tod Petersen (photo by Emilee Elofson)
Just like The Partridge Family, one of young Tod's inspirations, A Christmas Carole Petersen will make you happy. But you might also experience feelings of nostalgia, regret, gratitude, and sadness at the loss of those no longer with us. The holidays are complicated for many of us for various reasons, and this show allows you to feel how you feel about them, while still relishing the joys of a homemade cookie, a hand-written card, a familiar song, and a place to call home.

A Christmas Carole Petersen continues through December 23. For more holiday feels, also check out Theater Latte Da's other annual Christmas show, the quiet and lovely All is Calm, playing at the Pantages December 15-18.