From the moment you step into the lobby of Creative Cauldron, Madeline’s Christmas will teach your kids to be the protagonists of their own stories. Much like a Wonder Woman or Captain America costume on Halloween, young audiences this holiday season can pose confidently in front of an Eiffel Tower backdrop while wearing the titular character’s trademark red cloak, yellow scarf, and broad-brimmed hat.
The heart of this magical holiday musical mirrors that of Ludwig Bemelmans’ beloved children’s book in the notion that any person, no matter how small, can be a hero to their loved ones.
The return of Madeline’s Christmas — which saw a sold-out run at Creative Cauldron in 2014 — tells a charming tale that even the squirmiest kid can sit through, at only one hour long. The story opens on the sweet teacher Miss Clavel at the “old house in Paris that was covered in vines” escorting “12 little girls in two straight lines” to the zoo. Once there, her students encounter carnivorous animals, which frighten everyone except Madeline, the pluckiest and smallest Parisian of them all, who scoffs at danger with her trademark “Poo, poo!”
But the more fearsome foe of this tale is a flu virus which sets 11 scarfless girls and Miss Clavel sneezing — and will set your children singing the catchiest song of the musical, “Achoo,” for weeks. This malady sets up the conflict of the play: Can the hale and scarf-wearing Madeline nurse her friends to health in time for Christmas? How will she shuttle her boarding schoolmates home to their families and back again before New Year’s Eve? And what will she learn along the way?
The zoo animals in the opening scene, cleverly evoked by masked students who crawl through the shadows, sets the stage for the play’s frequent use of puppetry, and for the remarkable agency of young artists throughout this production. Young Magicians Assistants/puppeteers Owen Thiebert and Caden Mitchell impressively execute tricky puppet artistry while darting in and out of scenes, embodying magic powers through finger choreography in glowing gloves, and depicting all manner of creatures mid-flight through the sky.
This majority female-cast musical befits Creative Cauldron’s 2017-2018 season dedication to the stories of women and girls, although one wish for future productions would be for more diverse casting. The entire cast is unflappable — no stumble over a set piece or a line discourages these young thespians, and the actresses’ face light up during every song and dance number. The star of the show, the charismatic Gabriella Simmons-Robles — a fifth grader from Fairfax County — shows the weight of seven Creative Cauldron Learning and Musical theatre productions behind her through spunk and perfect pitch as Madeline. Although Simmons-Robles’ sweet voice is occasionally difficult to hear, she sets a laudable example of a confident and capable role model with compassion and leadership skills that any child would be lucky to see.
Despite its mature life takeaways, the play’s target audience for humor is decidedly young. Cascades of high-pitched giggles signal the fan favorite visual and auditory gags of the musical; kids scampering off-stage mid-sentence to supposedly barf from the flu, a cook chasing after mice puppets with a broom, a girl on a dogged quest for sweets; and a classmate who cannot seem to stop hiccupping.
closes December 23, 2017
Details and tickets
Parents will appreciate returning artist Margie Jervis’ detailed design of the girls’ dormitory, proper uniforms, and custom puppets, in combination with Stephen Gregory Smith’s peppy choreography, which blends the play’s fantastical magic with the enchantment of theatre itself. A pillow fight in which young actresses slow down, then accelerate their movements will introduce young audience members to the power of theatre to manipulate time. One complaint arises from the staging: audience members on the side wings of the black box theatre may take issue with some of the sight lines, since the actors mostly perform to the audience directly at front.
Not everything about the play caters solely to young people; parents will recognize how the pedigree of the adult actors also shines through. Shaina Kuhn, reprising her role as the nurturing Miss Clavel you always imagined from the storybooks, imparts cheer to the audience even through a congested nose and French accent. And Kuhn’s solo song during her separation from the girls, “Something Isn’t Right,” showcases her operatic pipes in the most heartfelt number of the night. As both a teacher (Monsieur Brun) and magical rug salesman (Harsha), returning actor Ryan Seller’s extensive work at Synetic Theater radiates through sparkle-eyed craft. His every movement and clowning facial expressions suggest affable mischief and draw your rapt attention. Additionally, it may tickle your fancy to see Laura Connors Hull, producing director of Creative Cauldron, hamming it up on stage as the “dotty cook” Mrs. Murphy.
Although the musical does take place during the holiday season, kids are likely to learn more about France from this production than to remember the show’s excerpt of The Night Before Christmas. Small code switches from English to French, a numeric countdown in French, and a lesson on the history of the Eiffel Tower will impart new knowledge about a foreign culture to youngsters over the course of an hour. And adults will enjoy a smirking reference to the musical’s source material in children’s books: when Harsha recounts to Madeline all he has heard of her adventures, and she asks, “How do you know so much about me?” to which he replies with a knowing grin towards the audience, “I read.”
A few points parents should know before taking their kids to see this musical: the sponsor of the play does announce before the first scene that i-c-e c-r-e-a-m will be available after the show (for a price) — which, depending on your child’s capacity for delayed gratification, could either make or break your viewing experience. Additionally, the play does send a few mixed messages regarding child safety; you may need to talk to your kids afterwards about proper cold and flu prevention hygiene, stranger danger, and when to approach animals.
But these concerns pale in comparison to the joy parents and kids alike will take in seeing 14 young people claim the stage with obvious glee. In no scene does an adult upstage the choreography, singing, or puppetry executed by the student actors.
Veteran director Matt Conner overtly gives young people space to shine, but also subtly imparts a message of child empowerment. Harsha doesn’t send the girls home — he teaches them how to find their own way. Miss Clavel doesn’t reprimand Madeline for taking charge of the house — she rewards her decisiveness as a caretaker.
Children benefit more from seeing healthy power dynamics than from any shiny new toy. In modeling behavior through which adults entrust young people to make their own decisions and help others, Creative Cauldron encourages a generation of audience members to grow up to be their own heroes. That’s true holiday magic.
Madeline’s Christmas. Directed by Matt Conner; book and lyrics by Jennifer Kirkeby; music by Shirley Mier. Based on the book by Ludwig Bemelmans. Scenic/costume/puppet design by Margie Jervis; choreography by Stephen Gregory Smith; music direction by Iyona Blake; lighting design by John Sami; properties management by Chris Riherd; scenic carpentry by Teddy Wiant. Featuring Shaina Kuhn as Miss Clavel, Ryan Sellers as Monsieur Brun/Harsha, Laura Connors Hull as Mrs. Murphy, Gabriella Simmons-Robles as Madeline, Adrianna Vargas as Regine, Abigail Boatwright as Isabelle, Libby Brooke as Simone, Piper Boatwright as Dominique, Jordan McCullough as Daphne, Fiona Scheer as Mary, Alyson Kentner-Leary/Samantha Grooms as Amy, Avey Manzel/Rachel Grooms as Anne, Miri Brooke/Bianka Lougheed as Kate, Courtney Weldon/Ava Feldstein as Juliette, Sophia Rador/Sicily Smith as Camille, and Owen Thiebert and Caden Mitchell as Magicians Assistants/Puppeteers. stage management by Dwight Townsend-Gray; assistant stage management by Morgan Beltson; Produced by Creative Cauldron. Reviewed by Kate Colwell.