Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
There is clearly a sizeable market for these stories, and good for Hallmark for serving them. The number of such movies I have actually seen is none (I know, not a number), so my perspective is based solely on the Hallmark commercials I used to watch on network television with rapt attention–sixty-second mini-dramas in which heartbreak is soothed by sending a greeting card, ending with the phrase "Hallmark–when you care enough to send the very best." It made me a Hallmark customer for life.
Which brings us to A Very Electric Christmas, this year's entry from Nimbus, another play devised to lampoon–but good-naturedly–the Hallmark Christmas genre. In a gimlet-eyed twist on the notion of life repeating art, the title was featured as an upcoming program advertised in mock commercials that periodically interrupted the narrative of last year's A Count Up to Christmas. Why not, thought the clever folks at Nimbus, bring one of those "upcoming programs" to full-fledged life, no longer upcoming but here and now. A Very Electric Christmas has come down the chimney at the Crane Theater, Nimbus' home base, with most of the same cast and creative team on board. The good news is that, far from overextending a clever idea, A Very Electric Christmas is even funnier, better constructed, and overall, more successful than last year's edition.
Trae Bowers (Manny Woods) is a rising TV news reporter from small town Snowflake Falls who has just made the big time, being hired to do investigative journalism for the popular nationally broadcast "Goodbye Last Night" (great name, that). Or so he thinks. Instead, narcissistic star reporter Shelly Steele snatches Trae's hot leads and he is sent by the show's take-no-prisoners producer right back to Snowflake Falls to cover their annual Christmas Festival. Trae is fuming when he arrives to check in at the town's only inn, which, wouldn't you know, is run by his sister Connie (Christy Johnson). Though Trae is bummed to be back in his smalltime hometown, he and Connie have a cozy reunion and commiserate over their shared aversion to the uber-Christmas spirit that infects everyone else in Snowflake Falls.
We don't have to work very hard to guess that young, ambitious, and virtuous Trae will get to apply those winning qualities to something bigger than the Christmas Festival. Carol Merriweather (Jane Hammill), an inspector from Heartland High Voltage, arrives for an annual look around the town's hydro-electric plant, operated by Dirk (Derek Dirlam). An organic farmer named Frankie (Tara Lucchino), who has been Connie's best friend since the two met in college, spends a lot of time at the plant too, but the bulk of the action takes place in the diner run by cook Sam Manella (Mitchell Frazier) and his glad-hand server Rudy (Jeffrey Goodson), while gossip-hound Gladys Tidings (Alex Stokes, a stitch), who never lets anyone forget that she was the town beauty queen a few decades back, is always popping up to spread cheer and rumors.
Of course, complications ensue. When no-nonsense inspector Merriweather detects something suspicious going on at the electric plant, Trae is determined to uncover the story first and thus turn his softball assignment into a hard news scoop. Then there is the bad blood between Trae and Dirk, the family back-story behind Connie and Trae's aversion to Christmas, and the running of the annual "Sexiest Elf" contest, all of which must be sorted out if there is to be a happy ending–which, being a Hallmark wannabe, we can count on. The path to that happy end is paved with jokes and funny turns in the plot, along with, once again, pauses for commercials promoting other holiday movies coming soon.
Those commercials are funnier than last year's batch and seem to intrude less into the narrative than was the case before. The entire show moves with fluidity and at a brisk pace, with no sense until it came to an end that, at two hours, it runs about 30 minutes longer than last year's edition. All of which is to say that playwright Josh Cragun and director Liz Neerland, who are Nimbus' co-artistic directors, have built on their good work last year to develop a strong suit in creating and mounting these spoofy but good-hearted holiday shows. A particularly witty flashback scene, smartly written and creatively staged, is just one great example of their solid work.
The game cast pulls the enterprise together nicely, with Alex Stokes commanding the biggest laughs as they fully embody the show-boaty Gladys. Manny Woods conveys bright energy and offers the right balance between frustrated ambition and journalistic ethics, though his expression of anger by seething between his teeth makes him difficult to hear at times. He and Christy Johnson have a warm rapport as a sister and brother, and Johnson also expresses an authentic sense of a loyal friendship toward Tara Lucchino's Frankie, the organic farmer. Lucchino imbeds a sense of earnest dedication to something big going on beneath the radar.
As Carol, the intrepid inspector, Jane Hamill puts her voice and body whole-heartedly into her character, but seemed to be having some trouble with lines at the performance I attended. Derek Dirlam is a steady presence as Dirk, the kind of reliable figure who, if this were a Western, would appear in the form of a righteous sheriff. Jeffrey Goodson delivers on Rudy's robust commitment to hospitality, though his accent veers a bit to southern Appalachian as opposed to the rest of the team's northern Yankee speech patterns. The script doesn't give Mitchell Frazier a lot to do as Sam Manella, but Frazier ably brings the character to life.
Rubble & Ash (otherwise known as Barb Portinga and Andrea M. Gross) have designed costumes that range from totally appropriate for everyday small town life (as well as, briefly, big-city newsroom life) to Gladys's over-the top trappings and a hilarious look for the sexy elf contest. The set, designed by Gaea Dill-D'Ascoli, divides the Crane's large stage into three locations–the diner, the control room at the electric plant, and the lobby at the inn, each with a fair amount of detail, and enabling the play to glide easily from one scene to the next. Lighting (Jon Kirchhofer) and sound (Jacob M. Davis) serve the main narrative well, but especially come to the fore during those commercial breaks.
Nimbus has done theatregoers and holiday celebrants a good turn by offering a welcome alternative to the familiar (some would say overly familiar) array of holiday entertainments. At the core of A Very Electric Christmas is a solid, even if implausible, plot, making the goofiness that adorns it more than just a series of laughs. And, refreshingly, the issues at hand do not hinge upon unrequited romance. I don't believe that A Very Electric Christmas has prompted be to sample the actual made-for-Hallmark movies, but it does make me look forward to whatever Nimbus has in store for us at this time next year.
A Very Electric Christmas runs through December 18, 2022, at Nimbus, Crane Theater, 2303 Kennedy Street N.E., Minneapolis MN. Tickets: sliding scale, $5 - $45. For information and tickets, please visit nimbustheatre.org or call 612-548-1379.
Playwright: Josh Cragun; Director: Liz Neerland; Set Design: Gaea Dill-D'Ascoli; Costume Design: Rubble & Ash; Lighting Design: Jon Kirchhofer; Sound Design: Jacob M. Davis; Prop Design: Ursula K. Bowden; Stage Manager: Alyssa Thompson.
Cast: Heidi Berg (voice of commercials narration), Derek Dirlam (Dirk Watercott), Mitchell Frazier (Sam Manella), Garry Geiken (voice of commercials narration), Jeffrey Goodson (Rudy Deerborn), Jane Hammill (Carol Merriweather/Lorna " Emmy Machine" Peters), Christy Johnson (Connie Bowers), Tara Lucchino (Frankie Simms/Shelly Steele), Alex Stokes (Gladys Tidings), Manny Woods (Trae Bowers).