Review: CHRIS, MRS. at Winter Garden Theatre

Candy-coated homegrown Christmas musical will delight fans of the Hallmark movie genre

By: Dec. 08, 2023
Review: CHRIS, MRS. at Winter Garden Theatre
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Let me preface this review by saying I’m a bit of a grinch.

As a Jewish woman in a Christmas-mad culture, I’ve been asked to awkwardly participate in two-plus months of Christmas pride every year since I can remember. My choir has sung more Messiahs and carols than I can count, I get asked why my family doesn’t have any beloved Christmas traditions, and every piece of media assures me that if I don’t simply love Christmas, there is something seriously wrong with me, fundamentally, as a human being.

So tonight, when I lit the candles for the first night of Chanukah and then promptly headed to the opening of CHRIS, MRS., the new, proudly Canadian Christmas musical presented by Boldly Productions at the Winter Garden Theatre, I reflected that I might not have been the correct choice of reviewer for this show. In other words, take everything I say with a reindeer-sized saltlick.

CHRIS, MRS., bills itself as a musical version of a Hallmark holiday movie, and it does exactly—and I mean exactly—what it says on the tin. If you are a lover of Hallmark family entertainment, you’ll be over the moon for this show. It boasts entertaining lyrics, killer dance moves, adorable children, and a quirky, can-do spirit.

That also means that it has all the parts of a Hallmark movie, for better or for worse: the snappy one-liners but the familiar plot beats, the heartwarming ending but the characters who largely exist to serve the plot beats, and the stellar cast but the stereotype-reinforcing casting choices where each love interest played by a person of colour just happens to be an impediment to a white couple getting together.

That being said, CHRIS, MRS. promises entertainment, and it certainly delivers. It’s fluffy and breezy and everything cheesy, with a song in its heart and a sparkle in its step, and it’s a perfectly pleasant way to while away the holiday hours.

Ben Chris (Liam Tobin) is our resident Christmas-hater. The “golden boy” of the Chris family, he has a high-powered advertising job in the big city, a glamourous influencer girlfriend, and three winsome kids. Ben’s brother Charlie (Kale Penny) runs a lodge formerly owned by their parents in a small town renowned for its holiday festivities; Ben hasn’t been back since his wife, whom he met at the lodge, passed away. Since then, he’s been obsessed with earning enough money to provide for mischievous twins Sam and Samantha (at our performance, Lucien Duncan-Reid and Addison Wagman) and bookish teen Claire (AJ Bridel).

To secure a promotion, he’s promised to sell the lodge to his boss Mr. Cross (George Absi)—yes, all the names are like this—so he needs to return home one more time with the kids and cheerful secretary Candace (Sarah-Lynn Strange) in tow to convince Charlie to sell. Conniving girlfriend Vicki (Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane) comes along for the ride, in the hopes that Ben will propose and make her brand more marketable. She’s not thrilled to find on-again, off-again lodge employee Holly Carmichael (Danielle Wade) decorating the Chris cabin. Holly, who’s hoping to settle down after consistently running away to parts unknown year after year, is as welcoming to the Chris children as Vicki is cold, and Sam and Samantha write a letter to Santa to ask for their dad’s happiness and his girlfriend’s departure, which is read by a mysterious bearded man named—one guess—Nick (Mark Weatherley).

The metronome to all this controlled chaos, Matthew Stodolak and Katie Kerr’s music bops steadily along. Their lyrics show a lot of promise, gaining Santa levels of mileage off the wordplay between an advertising and a Christmas jingle, and holiday-themed rhymes like “reindeer/stay in your lane, dear.” Choreographer Sarah Vance whips up some jaunty ensemble numbers with plenty of flips, and nobody slips (well, except Vicki, who fakes a busted ankle for sympathy).

The cast of CHRIS, MRS., seem like they’re having a blast. As rambunctious kid Samantha, Wagman has real comic timing, and her delight when one of her lines gets a huge laugh is extremely charming. Sinclair-Brisbane has some serious pipes, and Vicki blows the roof off the lodge with her act-closing villain song and later haughty exit.

Strange, a solid scene-stealer who brightens every moment she graces the stage, has a memorable signature laugh and significant chemistry with Weatherley’s Nick, the Secret Santa who provides bits of fourth-wall breaking magic. The moments where the show moves slightly out of reality (not Hallmark unreality, but actual magic) are quite fun, and I wish we’d gotten more of them, especially in the first half.

Tobin and Wade are both excellent individually, particularly in their heartfelt interactions with the Chris twins. As the musical’s main romance, however, they could use more of a spark to light the Yule log, especially since a lot of the character development seems to happen off-stage. (That’s the slightly maddening thing about the show; with its familiar, complicated plot, it omits a number of small but crucial pieces of information and character moments under the assumption that, since the audience already knows where things are going, we might as well cut to the chase.)

The secondary teen love triangle is less necessary but has a few more sparks, with Claire pining for a junior figure skating champion, Cole (Andrew Broderick), who just happens to be working at the lodge that year. Cole is a love-‘em-and-leave-‘em type, but one who’s happy to wingman fellow lodge worker Tim (Henry Firmston), who’s been pining for Claire since they were kids.

Bridel is a gifted singer with an appealing stage presence and nails all of her comedic numbers, particularly one where she sweats with nervousness over her crush on ice sk8r boi Cole, riding around on a tiny wheeled platform. However, there’s no hiding the fact that Claire’s 29-year-old actress is essentially the same age as Holly’s, and she just doesn’t have the physical presence of a teenager. This is exacerbated by her age difference from the age-appropriate twins, and the costuming, which tries for aged-down but winds up with Zooey Deschanel twee.

Costumes, by Cory Sincennes and Beyata Hackborn, are otherwise top-notch, from Candace’s tiered Christmas tree dress to Vicki’s va-va-voom Santa Baby numbers, to the vibrantly neon rinkwear of the mean girl teen skating squad. The Instagrammable outfits Vicki forces the Chrises to wear are a show in themselves, with Tobin skulking around in a red satin shirt under a matching red-jacket-and-tight-pants combo that, combined, look like Santa took a wrong turn at the leather bar. Sets are also cleverly designed to be moved in and out with minimal fuss while sparkling as much as possible.

With all the cheer and clutter, there’s an exceptional emotional moment in the show, where Ben reads his young twins a story their mother wrote about an owl and a songbird. Completely different in character from the rest of the music, “The Great Snowy Owl” is a standout number with the vibes of The Last Five Years’ brilliant “The Schmuel Song.” Notably, it’s also where Tobin gets to stop just being handsome and act both goofy and vulnerable, and he absolutely smashes it. It was the one genuine surprise in an otherwise familiar road map, and it made me truly wish that we’d had the time to get to know Ben better.

So there you have it, from a Christmas grinch. I can’t say my heart grew three sizes that day, but I can say that I was entertained, and that I wish CHRIS, MRS. the best of luck in becoming Toronto’s new holiday tradition.

After all, they say that standing up to repeat viewings is a good show’s…hallmark.

Photo of Danielle Wade and Liam Tobin (centre) with Isaac Grates-Myers, AJ Bridel, and Finn Cofell by Max Power Photography


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