Credit Where Credit Is Due, Covedale’s Nights Before Christmas is an Original Holiday Show
Posted On June 28, 2017
Review by Jack Crumley of The Nights Before Christmas: Covedale Center for the Performing Arts
It’s Christmas time, and this year, the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts is doing things differently. Rather than adapt a known classic like Miracle on 34th Street or even The Grinch, Covedale is premiering an original musical that’s been four years in the making by artistic director Tim Perrino: The Nights Before Christmas.
The Nights Before Christmas tells the story of Clement Clark Moore, the writer, linguist, and seminary scholar best known for the classic American poem “A Visit from St Nicholas,” which is better known today as “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” That 19th century work defined so many elements of Santa Claus that are taken for granted nowadays. The names of the eight reindeer, Santa as a “jolly old elf,” and even the idea that Santa delivers the presents on Christmas Eve all became cultural Christmas pillars because of that poem. It was published anonymously in 1823, and some 20 years went by before Moore publicly took ownership of the work.
And therein lies our story.
What begins as a Christmas caroling session in modern-day New York’s Clement Clark Moore Park quickly flashes back to Moore’s Chelsea estate in the 1800s. Moore (played by Matt Dentino, whose gift of a voice is a constant in the show) has written the titular poem for his family in celebration of Christmas. A distant relative, Henrietta Steward (played by Julia Hasl Miller), is jealous of Moore’s work and thinks her experience in the world of poetry would improve the final product. With the help of Moore’s new, gullible friend, Lorenzo DaPonte (affably played by Bob Brunner), Steward copies the poem, makes some changes, and has it published in a newspaper the following year, crediting only “anonymous.” This creates a conflict not only amongst family members, but within Moore himself. He wants to be known for his academic pursuits, and not a trite story he wrote for his children, despite their insistence that he take credit for his [brilliant, timeless] work. The show climaxes with a full, fantastical, musical rendition of “A Visit from St Nicholas.”
Musicals are tricky stage productions in that you not only have to have people who can act, but they also have to be able to sing and act at the same time. Too often, musical casting puts too much emphasis on singing ability alone. As I said, Matt Dentino’s voice splendidly carries every note with the pain that Moore’s character is feeling throughout much of the show. He emotes in broad ballads like Act I closer “Journey On,” and in quiet, aching numbers like “I Don’t Believe.” Sarah Viola’s operatic talents shine in “Summers at Chelsea.” Kalie Kaimann plays Moore’s eldest daughter, Mary, and her pleasant sound carries and blends very well. The cast sings every song with a recorded track, not a live band, and that makes their performances that much more difficult and noteworthy.
In terms of production, the statue of Moore that stands alone on stage at the beginning and end of the show is striking. The set for the Moore home comes across as warm and has been altered as needed from the Covedale’s previous production of The Foreigner. The lighting is very well-designed with swirling elements that help convey some of the show’s brief, supernatural elements. Soft spotlights also help draw the audience’s attention to specific actions and interactions when the full cast is on stage.
The songs in the show have elements ranging from Italian opera to family sing-a-long. The full servant staff of the house’s “It’s Christmas at Master Moore’s” is a fine scene-setter, evoking almost a “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast feel. The Moore children do a great job with both the singing and choreography in “Riding Home Lost in the Snow.” And Daponte’s “Picaresque Travelogue” recounts the librettist’s colorful, epic history.
The concept that Tim Perrino has in The Nights Before Christmas is interesting. Putting a dramatic story behind the making of this classic piece of American literature makes a lot of sense, especially considering the real-life scholarly debate about whether or not Moore actually wrote the poem.
That being said, I had some issues with the execution. It feels like there are important things that happen off-stage in Act I. Moore is presented as a stern academic, more focused on his sermon than his children on Christmas Eve. He leaves the house to deliver a turkey, and when he returns, he’s somehow been inspired by the sleigh ride he was on to write this story for kids. And the audience doesn’t get to see that shift. The lead actor goes from being a strict head of household, to a father relieved to be back home with verses about Santa Claus in tow. As an audience member, I want to see that inspirational moment. I want to see the main character grow like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol or even George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life.
Also, his inaugural reading of the poem at the Christmas Eve party starts with the first few lines, then flashes ahead to everyone cheering the poem’s ending. I realize that the payoff of Moore’s work comes with the full-blown production of “A Visit from St Nicholas” that he fantasizes about at the end of the play, but the way it’s skipped in the beginning is jarring. Until the big ending, I thought there were issues with getting the rights to performing the poem in its entirety.
Tim Perrino, composer Steve Goers, and the entire cast and crew should be very proud of the work they’ve put into this production. After curtain call on opening night, the cast gathered with Cincinnati Landmark Productions’ Communication Director Rodger Pille to celebrate Tim and Steve’s new work that’s now out in the world. It seems likely that this show could become a Christmas tradition at Covedale, and it’ll be interesting to see how the production evolves with each passing year.
The Nights Before Christmas runs through December 23, and tickets can be purchased here.