Cathartic Christmas tale is cabaret jewel

December 5, 2001.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

“We came last year, and we’re going to make this a tradition,” a theatergoer told Tod Petersen on Saturday night as the actor handed cookies to patrons leaving Theater Latté Da’s “A Christmas Carole Petersen.”

My feelings mirrored the happy matron’s, and I’ve spent more than a few minutes since leaving the Loring Playhouse wondering why this slight 75-minute cabaret dazzles my heart. Too much intellectual analysis starves the spirit, but it also begins to unravel some of the deep chords struck by Petersen and co-creator Peter Rothstein.

Christmas has morphed into many dimensions, but one of its strongest bass lines is family dynamics. Even folks estranged from their emotions about the holiday probably are in that condition because family relationships dredge up primitive raw feelings that rule our psyches.

Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” after all, is about how Scrooge’s tortured conscience produces a frightful evening that ends with his own redemption. Petersen has framed this winsome evening as his own Scrooge story – a cathartic trip through rumination, alienation and eventual rapprochement with his family through the prism of Christmas.

Ok enough from Dr. Freud.

Petersen seldom takes himself that seriously in this sweet tale – from the time he is cast as the youngest member of the Mankato Community Center’s production of “A Christmas Carol” to his protestations as a 43-year-old whose mother still insists, “Open your present from Santa.” Why does she persist in this make-believe? “Because it brings me joy. Besides, isn’t that what you do in the theater? Make-believe?”

Nasally juvenile as his childhood self, prissy as his mother and confident as an adult, Petersen finds the obvious genius in recounting memories of ordinary moments – the kind we all have – and spinning in bits of glitter along the way.

When, as a kindergartner, he walks into the community center for that first rehearsal, he is stunned to see Scrooge in cowboy boots and a leather vest. Where at the costume? Why are people walking around with scripts? He is shocked to realize that the snow is fake. He somehow thought they could make it really snow in the community center. With childlike mirth, Petersen brings alive the mind of a 5-year-old.

To this homespun frolic, co-creator Rothstein has added the sublime voices of Jonathan Rayson, Jennifer Grimm and David Anderson, who sing an eclectic bunch of songs that reflect Petersen’s Christmas moods as he moves through the evening. Woven together, their songs and Petersen’s honesty make this a cherished if frothy sendup of what Christmas means to the family.