Tuesday, November 22, 2022

"A Servant's Christmas" at History Theatre

For longtime History Theatre Artistic Director Ron Peluso's final show, he chose an old favorite - A Servant's Christmas. It premiered in 1980 and ran for over a dozen years. Early in his 27-year reign Ron had the idea to turn this stalwart play into a musical, and hired composer/ lyricist Drew Jansen to work with playwright John Fenn to add music to this story of servants in a grand house on Summit Avenue around the turn of the last century. The result is a lovely musical about a found family and the atypical way they celebrate the holiday* season, which can include many different traditions. The cast is chock full of fantastic singers, who also bring out all of the emotions of this story of love and longing. See A Servant's Christmas at the History Theatre in downtown St. Paul through December 18.

The plot of A Servant's Christmas is not dissimilar to The Sound of Music: a grieving widower loves his children but is overly strict with them, until a servant enters the household bringing joy and light. There's no romance, however, and there's a bit more involved as the newcomer is hiding a secret of her own. No she's not a nun, she's Jewish, in a world where that is not accepted (sadly still the case in some parts of the country and world). Monica "the second girl" soon finds her place with Eric the butler, Frieda the cook, and Miss Pettingill the governess, who seem to be the only friends that young Anne and Richmond have. When their father is away on a business trip over Christmas, the children ask all of the servants to bring a Christmas tradition from their childhood, which puts Monica in an awkward position. But with the help of a surprise visitor from Eric's theater past, Monica is able to tell the family who she really is and be accepted for it.

the Warner family (photo by Rick Spaulding)
Ron Peluso directs this fantastic cast, striking a nice balance between the lighter moments and the more somber. Serena Brook is wonderful as Monica, you feel all of her conflicting emotions, and she sings like a dream. Speaking of, Eric Morris and Erin Capello Kopp (who played the daughter in this play some 20 years ago) as the widowed Mr. Warner and his wife, who appears to everyone in the family, have a couple of really gorgeous vocal moments. Cathleen Fuller and Gary Briggle are both delightful as the busy servants, Jen Burleigh-Bentz (the governess) and Norah Long (the visitor) each only appear in one act but always make every show better, and youngsters Nicola Wahl and Sullivan Cooper are truly impressive as they more than hold their own amongst these veteran actors.

The songs are fun and catchy, with some lovely ballads. The orchestration is particularly effective - just piano (music director David Lohman) and clarinet (Zelda Younger), which in addition to being the best instrument (says the former clarinetist), also brings in an almost Klezmer sound that lends authenticity to Monica's story. Choreographer Tinia Moulder, who also appeared in the play a few decades ago, has brought some fun and lively movement to the piece.

holiday festivities (photo by Rick Spaulding)
The History Theater stage is dominated by a huge castle-looking structure, which rotates as the show opens to reveal the multi-level set. The formal dining room, servants' kitchen, and Monica's room are all visible. The cast is dressed in black and white servants' uniforms or period costumes, with Mrs. Warner and the visitor in particularly stunning gowns. (Scenic design by Rick Polenek, costume design by E. Amy Hill.)

At this time of the year when it seems the world is celebrating Christmas, and at this time in history when anti-Semitism has reared its ugly head once again, A Servants' Christmas tells a story of love and acceptance across religions and traditions. It's a great reminder, in this busy festive season, that not everyone celebrates Christmas. Our Jewish friends, our Muslim friends, people who grew up in different countries or cultures, may have different holidays and traditions that they celebrate that are just as valid and important as those in the dominant culture. But what we have in common is greater than our differences, as the Warner family and their servants learned.

A Servant's Christmas continues at the History Theatre in downtown St. Paul through December 18.

*Click here for reviews of all of the holiday shows I've seen this year.