BWW Review: World Premiere of AUNTIE CLAUS at Nashville Children's Theatre is the Perfect Holiday Gift
Megan Murphy Chambers and Rebecca Keeshin Star in Christmas Delight
Since arriving in our midst in early 2017, Ernie Nolan justifiably has gained a reputation as an innovator, a creative genius (Hyperbole? The answer is a resounding "no," judging from his artistic achievements of the past two-plus years) and a master of challenging the status quo. As executive artistic director at Nashville Children's Theatre - one of the leading theater companies in America, dedicated to serving young audiences through challenging, elucidating offerings certain to appeal to their varied sensibilities - he's given us a plethora of productions that have been both unexpected and exhilarating, elevating the local theater scene immeasurably in the process.
Mr. Nolan's recordat NCT, albeit brief, speaks for itself. Case in point: the world premiere production of Auntie Claus, the holiday-themed musical now onstage at the iconic Nashville theater through December 29. Based on the beloved children's book by Elise Primavera, with book and lyrics by Marcy Heisler and music by Zina Goldrich, and featuring a cast of Music City theater favorites led by the luminous Megan Murphy Chambers and the always delightful Rebecca Keeshin, Auntie Claus is a Christmastime confection that fairly brims over with all the imaginative riches only musical theater can provide. The sparkling new musical gives an exquisitely clever retelling of Primavera's wonderful holiday tale that reminds us to believe in all manner of possibilities while taking notice of all those people around us who make them possible.
Staged by Nolan (who directs and choreographs the large-scale production with his requisite wit and amazing skill) with all the theatricality he could muster and featuring the technical wizardry and imagination of a cadre of theater artists, including music director David Weinstein, lighting designer Scott Leathers, Scenic and costume designer Court Watson, sound designer David Wright and production stage manager Teresa Driver and her team, Auntie Claus offers audiences a superb Christmastime diversion. In the space of a scant one hour production, Auntie Claus offers everything you'd find in a Broadway show - a visually compelling stage spectacle, memorable showtunes you long to hear again and again, and fantastic performances from a coterie of talented artists - and so much more.
As the world premiere of a new musical, Nashville audiences are afforded the opportunity to see a show likely to become a holiday season favorite for years to come, here in their beloved hometown "children's" theatre, replete with all the trappings one might expect of a production on the Main Stem. Make no mistake about it: Auntie Claus will go on from these beginnings in Music City to become a staple of theater companies all over the world in search of the new and exciting to offer their own audiences.
Heisler's book is beautifully written: she evocatively transcribes Primavera's original work to the stage with an easy grace that makes it even more appealing to audiences of all ages and she supplies some very clever wordplay for the songs composed by the talented Goldrich that ensures each song achieves its intention. Opening with "Christmas in New York," a number that instantly transports audiences to the Big Apple for a picture postcard holiday and keeps audiences engaged all the way through to the finale of "I Can't Wait for Christmas." In the midst of composing all these new songs, which are perhaps destined to become holiday standards, she displays her own skillful virtuosity by employing varied musical inspirations. As a result, the score of Auntie Claus is intriguing and exciting.
Megan Murphy Chambers takes on the title role in the sumptuously produced musical, bringing all the charm and stage presence expected. Confidently taking on the mantle of musical theater star, Chambers' ebullient personality and ability to make anything and everything she does on stage seem fresh and startlingly new ensures that all eyes remain riveted to her throughout the show. Without giving too much away, she plays the sister of a certain holiday season icon and she commands the stage like a boss, whether she's arriving in style at her New York City apartment house or enrobing herself in all sorts of disguises during a sojourn to the North Pole.
And while Chambers assumes the eponymous role of Auntie Claus, it's really Rebecca Keeshin who has the production's leading role, playing an oftentimes selfish and self-absorbed tween named Sophie Kringle, who must gently be guided to her role in the family business. Keeshin, who has been so impressive in a wide range of roles at NCT over the past few seasons, shows off her own musical theater bona fides to create a genuinely likable character who steals virtually every scene she's in.
The wonderful world of Auntie Claus is populated by talented individuals who bring the show to life with enormous verve and palpable energy: Jack Tanzi is wonderfully wicked as Sophie's even more spoiled younger brother Chris Kringle, with Sawyer Wallace and Darcie Wantiez perfectly cast as their parents. Broadway, national tour and regional theater veteran Abe Reybold makes a notable NCT debut as the avuncular doorman Harold and as Mr. Pudding, the director of North Pole operations.
The principals are joined on their adventure by an ensemble of gifted performers who become everyone from harried holiday season New Yorkers to the elves who assemble all of Santa's gifts and keep track of whose names appear on the in-and-out/good-and-bad list every year. Melissa Tormene, Sarah Michelle Bailey, Rona Carter, Hannah Clark, Treston Henderson, Jonathan Killebrew, Alex Pineiro, David Stobbe and Imari Thompson seem always in motion - and always changing costumes and wigs offstage before a quick return to the main event - and they do so admirably and with complete focus and commitment.
Court Watson provides the stunningly vibrant set upon which all the action takes place, transforming the theater into a beautiful New York City at holiday time, then turning on a dime to whisk audiences away to the North Pole via a magical, if rather confined, elevator. His costumes for the plethora of characters contained in the story are extraordinary: Chambers is strikingly gift wrapped in red and white, while everyone else is decked out in fashionable finery worthy of any fashion runway of the season. Scott Leather lights the proceedings with his trademark imagination, lending a sense of even more magic to the production.
And last, but certainly not least (trust me on this), David Wright's sound design is impeccable. Every word spoken, every note sung, every number played by music director David Weinstein and his pit musicians is heard and appreciated beyond measure.
Auntie Claus. Book and lyrics by Marcy Heisler. Music by Zina Goldrich. From the book Auntie Claus by Elise Primavera. Directed and choreographed by Ernie Nolan. Musical direction by David Weinstein. Stage managed by Teresa Driver. Presented by Nashville Children's Theatre. Through December 29. For more information, go to www.nashvillect.org or call (615) 254-9103. Running time: 1 hour, 5 minutes (with no intermission).
photos by Reed Hummel