Dominic P. PapatolaPioneer Press
December 5, 2016
Creating a holiday show can be tricky business. It can’t run too hot or too cold. It can’t be too hard or too soft. It can’t feel too big or too small. Bringing back “A Christmas Carole Petersen” after an eight-year hiatus, Theater Latte Da has summoned an artistic Goldilocks and gotten things just right.
“Carole,” a holiday staple for Latte Da in the early 2000s, is Tod Petersen’s more-or-less true-to-life story about living through the holiday season as he was growing up in southern Minnesota in the 1960s and 1970s. Petersen channels his entire family and much of his neighborhood, but most of his reminiscences center on his mother, whose name gives the play its title.
Purse-lipped, proper and adorably clueless (particularly when discussing the Guthrie Theater’s production of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickenson, featuring an appearance by the ghost of Bob Marley that scared the liver and lights out of her), it’s Carole and her annual holiday letters that frame the story and serve as segues to the musical interludes by Ryan Lee, Sara Ochs and Dominique Wooten.
There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments — the Petersens’ caroling tour through their neighborhood — “the only ethnically diverse block in Mankato” chief among them.
But it’s not all sweetness and light. “A Christmas Carole Petersen” is, among other things, a coming-of-age story, and Petersen, working with co-creator and director Peter Rothstein, deftly blends in other flavors as well — the bittersweet tang of Christmas away from familiar surroundings, the dilute savor of a faded faith, the nourishing warmth of finding a place that feels like home.
The dozen and a half songs arranged and accompanied on piano by Denise Prosek are deft as well. One might quibble with the song assignments — Wooten’s classically trained tenor is an unorthodox pairing with the bluesy “Please Come Home for Christmas” and Lee reaches for some notes in Joni Mitchell’s high, airy “River” — but the three vocalists are a game and rangy bunch, singing and playing a slew of instruments from flute and accordion to maracas and the ukulele.
Petersen might be little more ample and a little less flexible than he was a decade back, but hasn’t lost a step as a storyteller. His imitation of his mom lovingly borders on ditsy without quite becoming a caricature. And when he’s telling his own more grown-up tales of some less-than-joyful Christmases, he’s clear-eyed and sincere without being self-pitying.
The show was periodically refreshed throughout its early years, and while much is familiar, there are some tweaks in this revival as well. The show runs about 100 minutes including intermission, and though it seldom feels padded, the second act hits what feel like a couple natural ending points — an up-tempo Partridge Family-esque tune, Och’s wistful rendering of Julie Gold’s “Christmas Eve” — but continues to motor through another couple stories and songs before finally arriving at a cozy end.
That’s a bother, but a minor one. Petersen and his pals aren’t like the Christmas party guests who stay too long. If anything, you might wish they’d stick around just a little longer.
IF YOU GO
What: “A Christmas Carole Petersen,” produced by Theater Latte Da When: Through Dec. 23 Where: Ritz Theater, 345 13th Ave. N.E., Minneapolis Tickets: $45-$35 Information: 612-339-3003 or theaterlatteda.com Capsule: An erstwhile Twin Cities holiday theater tradition makes a welcome return.