Music is highlight of ‘Christmas Carole Petersen’

November 27, 2006.By Renee Valois, Pioneer Press.

Tod Petersen seems to have a good heart and a nice family, and it shows in “A Christmas Carole Petersen” from Theater Latte Da. But his memories of Christmas through the years with his family are pretty unremarkable.

Petersen tries hard, with lots of animated mugging and an artificial “mom” voice as he reads selections from his mother’s annual family Christmas newsletter. However, the content of those letters is too ordinary to be comic.

Petersen’s recollections of family traditions are just what you might expect to hear from such an extroverted buddy. Forty-or 50-something baby boomers may find it pleasant to revisit icons of the ‘70s, such as fondue pot suppers and “The Partridge Family” in this show written by Petersen and Peter Rothstein, who also directs.

But the material is just not funny enough or poignant enough to make a strong production. There are some comic bits, such as the family’s tailoring of its Christmas caroling selections to the ethnicity and religion of its neighbors. Nevertheless, they’re too sparse.

The music interspersed between Petersen’s monologues is another matter. The first couple of songs, which Petersen sings in the off-key manner of a young child, are not very charming. But as soon as Petersen’s partners, “the Carolettes,” take the stage, the show becomes entertaining.

Jody Briskey, William Gilness and Randy Schmeling all have lovely voices, and they harmonize well together. Each also has a chance to shine on solos. Briskey does a comic, over-the-top Mrs. Claus, while Gilness and Schmeling emote on lesser-known holiday tunes, such as Joni Mitchell’s poignant “River.”

Petersen himself actually has a nice voice when he’s not portraying a tuneless tyke, but we don’t get to hear it until late in the show. Accompaniment is kept simple, with a piano the mainstay and occasional guitar and percussion elements added by the performers – much as a family might pull together for their own Christmas sing-along.

Petersen’s ambivalence about Christmas comes through the show – which includes brief moments of him in “Scrooge” persona. Consequently, the production lacks the inspiring cheer of many seasonal shows.

His view of the season from a vantage is the most original part of the piece, but Petersen just skims the surface of that, not mining the material deeply enough.

Although the music in “A Christmas Carole Petersen” is enjoyable, the package it’s wrapped in could be more appealing.