In an old house in Paris, covered in vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.
And at Creative Cauldron, for their Christmas thing, the twelve little girls get up and sing.
Oh, all right, I’m sorry, that was horrible — it’s just that it’s the holiday, and Madeline’s Christmas is a musical loaded with child actors, and the standards are just different. This is not Sweeney Todd, or even Disenchanted, and Lara Rosata, the charismatic 9-year-old actor who plays Madeline well but who talks a little too fast, is not, say, Nova Payton. We are not here to determine whether Madeline creator Ludwig Bemelmans, God rest his good soul, or adapters Jennifer Kirkeby and Shirley Mier, have achieved the fictive dream, or have developed appropriate character arcs, or have achieved the Aristotelian Unities.
We are instead gathered here to observe whether a show, written for children and mostly performed by children, honorably observes the seasonal tradition of good cheer, optimism and faith in magic. It largely does.
The story is, shall we say, not terribly complicated. Madeline lives with eleven other young girls in a Parisian Catholic Boarding School over which the redoubtable Miss Clavel (the operatic Anna Phillips-Brown) presides. Madeline is often described as “plucky” but what characterizes her in this (and other stories) is an almost lunatic self-confidence; at the zoo with her compatriots, she reaches inside to pet the lion and thereafter climbs up to communicate with the monkey (the zoo animals are played by young Leah Tysse, Maya Johnson and Nora O’Sullivan, who double as instruments of magic). The real danger, though, is not animal attack but the flu, which strikes all her colleagues and Miss Clavel, but not Madeline, who has had the foresight to wear her scarf.
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Laid low by illness, it looks like the whole crew will miss Christmas. But the rug merchant Harsha (Chris Rios) is also in the magic business, and, after some special pleading by Madeline, agrees to use his special powers to cure the whole crew and also sell them some magic carpets, which will allow them to fly high above Paris to visit their families over the holidays. Sorry for giving the story away without any spoiler alert.
All of this is accomplished in a charmingly low-tech way, with little puppets on sticks representing the flying children, who are accompanied by birds, and planes, and a ladder, festooned with Christmas lights representing the Eiffel Tower. Equally charming is the appearance of Martin the Mouse, a puppet skillfully operated by Phillips-Brown and Rosata among others. Laura Connors Hull appears briefly as Mrs. Murphy, the cook.
The children sing the six musical numbers well, and in harmony; and Phillips-Brown has a beautiful voice. Rios, perhaps, not so much so; and he sings-says his music, in the style of Rex Harrison. The choreography (Stephen Gregory-Smith) is not spectacular but is adequate for the tiny Creative Cauldron space. The children maintain a disciplined presentation until the very last number, and then are not very far off the mark.
Madeline’s Christmas closes December 23, 2019. Details and tickets
It’s hard to watch this show and not think of the difference between Bemelman’s world (he wrote in the late 1930s) and ours. Our grandparents (or great-grandparents, or…you get the picture) were much less risk-adverse than we are. Madeline pets a lion; she flies on a magic carpet high above Paris, as everybody else does; she answers a knock on the door, without first consulting the legal authorities. In the present day, this would automatically invoke a visit from Child Protective Services, and Miss Clavel’s establishment would soon be shuttered. To the extent that Madeline’s persona is an invitation to a bolder childhood, and a call to adventure, that war is over, and that battle has been lost.
And that’s all there is, there isn’t any more.
Madeline’s Christmas, book and lyrics by Jennifer Kirkeby, music by Shirley Mier, based on the book by Ludwig Bemelmans. Directed by Matt Conner . Choreography by Stephen Gregory-Smith . Music direction by Stephen Mark Crisp . Featuring Anna Phillips-Brown, Chris Rios, Laura Connors Hull, Lisa Rosata, Abby Fred, Gabriella Modine, Arminé Heard, Sophie Schmiottel, Bevin Mills, Mai Gabra, Peyton Rydzewski, Marianne Meade, Sophie Silva, Carmen Ortiz, and Penelope Levy . Set, costume and puppet design by Margie Jarvis . Lighting design by James Morrison . Nicholas Goodman, assisted by Sonel Cutler and Maya Kramer, is the stage manager . Produced by Creative Cauldron . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
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