Arthur DormanTalkin' Broadway
December 6, 2016
Carole Peterson is an irrepressibly positive woman who finds the good in everyone and every situation, and makes darn sure that everyone in her family does the same. At least, that is the image Tod Peterson creates of his mother in A Christmas Carole Peterson. With Peter Rothstein, Peterson assembled this memoir of his mother's role as ringmaster of the family Christmas at their home in Mankato, Minnesota. The show, which blends Tod's narration with songs performed by three singers, or "Carolettes", was first mounted in 2000 by Theater Latté Da, and returned as a much loved holiday offering through 2008. After an eight year hiatus, Tod has brought his Mom back to delight old friends and fans, and give new audiences a chance to get in on the fun.
Tod Peterson appears as himself, but at times impersonates his mother Carole as well. The other family members—Tod's father, older brother, and two younger sisters—mainly are present by way of Tod's account of holidays gone by. Using the classic family Christmas letter, accounting for the highlights of each family member's year gone by, read by Tod in his Carole Peterson impersonation, we are able to mark the passage of years. In the first letter, Carole announces the arrival of baby Tod in 1958. Anyone familiar with these holiday missives (and who is not?) will smile broadly at the insistently upbeat news, in which each child has spent the past year developing one of their many interests to great success. Not bragging—at least not intentionally—but wanting to share the pride and joy their children give with their extended family and friends. No need for pesky details of struggles or disappointments.
Tod shares his journey, through the loving eyes of his mother, from his first acting role as one of Ebenezer Scrooge's childhood classmates in a community theater Christmas Carol, to his childhood best friend Maura Maisel, and his role as the family "entertainer," his suspicions over the truth about Santa Clause and disappointment in the church, especially in relation to his identity as a gay man, and his early adult efforts to find success in his acting career and in love. Carole always sought a way to put a happy spin on his hardships, no matter how much that grated on Tod.
The show is a fast-moving 85 minutes, with an intermission, with the Carolettes—performed by Ryan Lee, Sara Ochs and Dominque Wooten—entering after each episode of Tod's narration with a song that suits the Peterson saga. When the family is temporarily living in Hawaii, we are treated to "Mele Kalikamaka" and "Christmas Island." To celebrate Carole's job at the International Students Office of Mankato State University, we are feted with "Feliz Navidad." A particularly droll sequence depicts the Peterson family's annual caroling, singing a song with each of their neighbors—including an African American, a Japanese, and a Jewish family—in mind. There is also a tremendous "Partridge Family" send-up, going back to days of yore when Tod imagined himself David Cassidy and his friend Maura was Susan Dey. Bring on the tambourines!
The Carolettes, each a singer-actor, also perform, as soloists, songs that reflect on Tod's feelings, especially after leaving his childhood home in pursuit of his own home as an adult, songs that express longing, tenderness and hope. These include beautiful renditions of "Please Come Home for Christmas" sung by Dominque Wooten, "River" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas" sung by Ryan Lee, and "Christmas Eve" sung by Sara Ochs. Ms. Ochs also performs a comically manic number written by Peterson, "Christmas Vacation," that rails against the holiday hubbub. Tod himself sings "Our First Christmas," which tenderly recollects sharing the holidays with a new love. Adding mightily to the entire piece is music director Denise Prosek, on stage throughout, on piano.
Peter Rothstein clearly has tremendous affinity for this piece, and his direction maintains the show's affection for the people and times it portrays. He puts the cast through good-humored paces as they perform some of the campier musical numbers, while bringing out the heart in the more reflective songs. Michael Hoover's setting resembles a late 1950s department store salon, decked out for the holidays with wreaths, trees and greenery. Rich Hamson's costumes have the players tastefully dressed in holiday colors (nothing garish), and Mary Shabatura's lighting helps to create the various feelings emitted from Tod's reminiscence.
A Christmas Carole Peterson is more than one man's good-humored fan letter to his mom, and to the benefits (albeit, not always easy to accept) of unconditional acceptance and love. For anyone who has a warm spot in their heart for the heightened feelings the holidays brought to their childhoods—whatever holidays those might be—the show offers a warm embrace that tells us, even if we can never return there, "there's no place like home for the holidays." We can laugh anew at the old frolics, shed a tear for what is no more, and feel the surging warmth of a past that lives still within us.
A Christmas Carole Petersoncontinues through December 23, 2016, at the Ritz Theater, 345 13th Avenue NE, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $35.00 - $48.00. For tickets call 612-339-3303 or go to theaterlatteda.com.
Written by: Tod Peterson and Peter Rothstein; Director: Peter Rothstein Music Director: Denise Prosek; Set Design: Michael Hoover; Costume Design: Rich Hamson; Lighting Design: Mary Shabatura; Sound Design and Engineer: Kevin Springer; Properties Master: Abbee Warmboe; Technical Director: Stein Rosburg; Stage Manager: Tiffany K. Orr; Assistant Director: Emily England; Assistant Stage Manager: April Harding.
Cast: Ryan Lee (Carolette), Sara Ochs (Carolette), Tod Peterson (himself), Dominque Wooten (Carolette)