All Will Have a Good Night at Covedale‘s Nights Before Christmas
Posted On June 28, 2017
Review by Doug Iden of The Night’s Before Christmas: Covedale Theatre
Want to know Moore about how Clement wrote the beloved poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas? Some of those answers are presented in the world premiere of The Nights Before Christmas with book and lyrics written by Tim Perrino and music by Steve Goers at the Covedale Theater. Perrino is the Artistic Director of the Cincinnati Landmark Productions including Covedale and the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater and Goers has been music director for many local productions at a variety of theaters.
The play, told in flashback, tells the story of ancient languages scholar and theologian Clement Moore, a dour New Yorker who wrote the poem A Visit from St. Nicholas (popularly known today as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas) – or did he? The play travels two paths: one addresses the writing (or not) of the poem interwoven with Moore’s personal family life. Events in the play take place on Christmas Eves in five different years starting in 1822 when Moore first penned the poem and concludes in 1844 when the family leaves the mansion at Chelsea for Rhode Island since the city of New York is encroaching on what was originally a rural setting when the play starts.
The controversy relates to the authorship of the poem (which is still somewhat disputed today). In the play, Moore, portrayed by veteran Cincinnati actor Matt Dentino, leaves the mansion on Christmas Eve in 1822 for a charitable endeavor and returns very late to the consternation of the Moore family and servants. While out, Moore has written the poem and secured the assistance of a sleigh driver Lorenzo DaPonte who had been the librettist for Mozart’s famous operas including The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi Fan Tutte but had recently fallen on bad times. On Moore’s arrival home, he starts an annual tradition of reading the poem to his family and servants. However, before Moore can recite the poem, Moore’s wife’s cousin Henrietta Steward (Julia Hasl Miller) grabs the poem, copies and “doctors” it. The following year, Henrietta submits the poem to a newspaper and it is published with an author of “Anonymous”. Moore is furious about the publication, especially when Henrietta claims partial authorship. Moore is proud of the poem but does not want a triviality to demean his scholarly works, plus he considers his wife as the owner of the poem. There is some resolution as the play progresses. You have no Claus to worry about the plot.
While the authorship issue provides the dramatic tension, the heart of the show relates to the extended Moore family, including the servants. Despite a stern and mirthless exterior, Moore’s passion for his wife Mary Moore (Kalie Kaimann) and children Catherine (Sarah Viola), Charity (Jordan Darnell), young Clement (Phoenix Haigus) and Emily (Nora Darnell) seeps through. Dentino’s depiction of Moore is both heartfelt and heart-rending as personal tragedy continues to haunt the family throughout. Dentino’s performance is sterling and holds both the dramatic and vocal elements together. In this score, you can really hear the depth of Dentino’s vocal range.
There is a lot of music in the show which sounds more like an operetta than a classic Broadway musical. There are some lighter comic songs like Donna Henrietta and A Picaresque Travelogue but most are dramatic, passionate or soulful. Leaving the theater, I could not hum any of the songs but was impressed with the depth of the music, especially the songs Journey On (which poignantly concludes the first act), Tonight, My Lullaby, The Father of Christmas and Christmas Belongs to Her (referring to his now deceased wife). Unfortunately, I had difficulty hearing some of the lyrics which is necessary because the songs tell much of the story.
With one exception, the singing was very strong with special nods to Dentino and Sarah Viola (daughter Mary), Dylan McGill (James Ogden) and especially Kalie Kaimann whose enunciation and clear voice propelled the drama. The bombastic, over-the-top acting of Bob Brunner, as Lorenzo, was a highlight but he was frequently flat while singing. The principal servants played by Gabriella Francis, Leslie Hitch and Brandon Bentley provided the comic relief and contributed to the excellent chorus throughout the play.
The single set staging designed by Brett Bowling seemed to represent what an 1820’s wealthy, rural New York mansion may have looked like with heavy oak walls, many paintings and holiday decorations. Two lighted Christmas trees flanked the stage on each side which lent to the holiday spirit. The costuming by Caren Young appeared to be authentically historical and decorous. I normally do not mention dialect coaches but Katelyn Reid had to deal with English, German, Irish and (occasionally) Italian accents which mostly worked.
I need to pay particular attention to the lighting (of which I have been a frequent critic at the Covedale). The combination of the set and the lighting significantly enhanced the dramatic impact of the story. As an example, the lighting (and costuming) of Moore’s now deceased wife who appears during an anguished scene is very effective as Moore sings of his love and she suddenly appears in the door, backlit in a beautiful white dress. During the same scene, blue lights (symbolizing Moore’s torment) effectively follow Dentino around the stage. Those scenes, plus Santa’s emergence down the chimney, are highlights.
This show is much more dramatic and emotional than I thought it would be. I anticipated fun fluff but instead witnessed a show with more heft and structure instead. The audience seemed to agree. The play is somewhat uneven and could be tightened a little but, overall, I was impressed with the effort. This is also the first play premiere I have attended.
So hop on your sleigh, grab your egg nog and fly to The Nights Before Christmas beClaus Santa is coming to town. The play continues at the Covedale Theater through January 12, 2017.