John Fenn’s play A Servant’s Christmas has been staged at History Theatre 16 times since it premiered in 1980. In 2004, Fenn worked with Composer Drew Jansen to create a new version of the play A Servant’s Christmas – A Holiday Musical. So in one form or another they’ve been sharing this story every 3 years or so over the last 42 years. This was the first play that retiring Artistic Director Ron Peluso directed for History Theatre and fittingly, it’s his last; it makes for a wonderful bookend to Peluso’s tenure. Oddly, this was my first exposure to the work and I found it charming. While this isn’t a particularly edgy piece, there is still a message to it and it’s one that sadly, is becoming more and more important to remind people of. I don’t want to touch on that message because it involves a plot point that we are not clued into until the second half of the story. While the story isn’t groundbreaking, it’s well told and the lively cast really involves the audience in the characters lives and situations. So much in fact that I was surprised to find tears in my eyes at the end.
Without giving away too much the basics of the story center around the Warner household one of the great homes on Summit Avenue in St Paul in December of 1899. The servants of the title are Frieda the Cook, the Butler Eric, Miss Pettingill the Governess, and the new maid/second girl, Monica Leary, who arrives to help lighten the load shortly after the play opens. Mr. Warner is a widower whose wife died in childbirth in recent years leaving him to raise his two surviving children Richmond and Anne. Mr Warner runs a strict household, somewhat reminiscent Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music, his children complain that the only interactions he has with them involves their school work and their Bible study. Everyone in the house feels the absence of Mr Warner’s late wife Angelina. Most of the characters have a scene where we see them interacting with Angelina, not as an actual flashback and not as a ghost, but in a way that conveys to us that they are thinking of and missing her. The arrival of Monica somehow acts as a catalyst for change and this well-oiled household begins to break out of its rut, much to Mr. Warner’s dismay. We learn early on that Monica has a secret but we are not clued in to what that is and while perhaps it isn’t a spoiler, because it is covered in the promotional materials, I feel it’s a more enjoyable experience if you discover her secret during the play so I’m not going to reveal it here. The strength of play really isn’t in the plot details, it’s in the interactions between the characters and the relationships they develop.
Gary Briggle is Eric the wise Butler who runs the household, juggles the personalities, smooths the ruffled feathers, and plays surrogate father to everyone. Briggle is fantastic in the role, he has just the right tone with each of the other characters. You can see that he’s playing a different role with each them and it’s Briggle’s skill that what we see is Eric the Butler playing those different roles. He also acquits himself well with the songs, a particular favorite is the song “Where Did You Get That Hat?”. The song is performed with Norah Long as a famous actress Lillian, whom Eric knew when he was younger, and tread the boards back in England as a “promising juvenile”. Long enters the show rather late but certainly makes an impact. Doing wonderful character work is Cathleen Fuller as Frieda the cook from Deutschland, whose bark is worse than her bite. Monica is played by Serena Brook who doesn’t seem to really come alive as a character until after she stops hiding her secret which is nearly at the end of the show. Showing some real chops are two promising juveniles, Sullivan Cooper as Richmond Warner and Nicola Wahl as Anne Warner. One interesting casting note I actually suspected, that the role Lillian and that of Miss Pettingill played in fact by Jen Burleigh-Bentz was the same actress playing both roles. They never appear on stage together and Miss Pettingill wears glasses and is very prim and proper while Lillian has an elaborate hairstyle and is made up rather glamorously. Add to that not seeing them next to each other, they seem to be about the same height and size and their hair coloring is similar. I’m actually rather surprised that the actor doesn’t double in both roles and suspect other stagings have utilized that in order to save on resources.
The set is designed by Rick Polenek and it’s a rather elaborate set that turns 160 degrees on a giant turntable as the play opens. It’s tall, essentially becoming a three-story affair allowing for multiple different locations with lots of entrances and exits available. So, while we might not see the library we know it’s through these doors which adds a sense of space, it’s a great use of real estate. The music director is David Lohman who also plays the piano along with the only other musician Zelda Younger on the clarinet. It’s a decidedly Lo-Fi approach but it works. To be honest, I’m not sure this needs to be a musical. There are several musical moments that could stay in the show even if all of the others were cut out and I think that would work just fine. The show is long, at 2 hours and 40 minutes with an intermission and cutting some songs might help. I’d be interested to see the play version of the show or if that version has no singing in it. Perhaps a hybrid where we still get Monica’s traditional song at the end, Lillian’s solo song, and the song where Eric and Lillian perform “Where Did You Get That Hat?”, and maybe the children singing the song their mother taught them. Don’t get me wrong, the rest of the songs are fine, the opening number “Double Up” is actually quite fun, The song “Stereopticon” is a good idea for a song but somehow didn’t grab me like it should have.
A Servant’s Christmas – A Holiday Musical Runs through December 18th at history theater downtown Saint Paul for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.historytheatre.com/2022-2023/servants%E2%80%99-christmas
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