You have to hand it to creative artists that take on the thankless task of creating new holiday musicals. Let's face it, we've all grown up with the classic songs of the season and they are now part of our collective DNA. From Irving Berlin's teary "White Christmas" to the irresistible beat of the "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings" mash-up by the Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan, and from "Let It Snow" by Boyz II Men to the borderline pornographic rendition of "Santa Baby" by Eartha Kitt, the holidays drenched with amazing music.
So, hats off to the Cleveland Play House and the playwright/composers Jason Michael Webb and Lelund Durond Thompson for attempting to fashion a new holiday musical, LIGHT IT UP, that clearly wants to celebrate love, togetherness and joy. The 100-minute one act employs a variety of musical styles—pop, jazz, gospel, and more—all performed in festive holiday garb by a cast that is diverse in all respects and seamlessly enthusiastic.
Trouble is, the story is as thin and insubstantial as $3 an hour rent-a-Santa, and the overall tone of the production hovers somewhere between a Fourth Grade show-and-tell and an Andy Williams Christmas Special from the 1960s. It all takes place in (you'll never guess) Tinselville, a happy place where happy people are happy to share their happiness with other people who are...happy. And the cast of characters includes chipper folks named Holly Daye, Ginger Snap, Candie Canemaker, Juniper Green and Orna Mint. It's all so twee it makes you want to commit suicide by eggnog.
In the introductory program notes, CPH states that LIGHT IT UP is "a contemporary inclusive holiday story told through music and storytelling." That comment, although less than syntactically elegant, indicates that the goal is storytelling. But that is belied by the absence of a vital part of any story: conflict. Perhaps the aim, in this godawful time of a long and lingering pandemic, was to just focus on love and kindness. Well, love and kindness don't make for a very good story, and that's what we have here, without a Grinch or Abominable Snow Monster in sight.
The production is segmented into more than 20 separate scenes, and great care is taken to make sure every holiday icon box is ticked: Nutcracker, check. Scrooge (the lovable version), check. Rudolph, check. Hanukkah, check. Kwanzaa, check. Even Santa Lucia, Cinderella, and Donations for the Unhoused are dragged into the fray. Jesus! (Yes, him too, check.)
There are a few gestures at humor, with Orna Mint singing an R&B Christmas ditty and then trying to execute the James Brown cape schtick where he sings his heart out, is covered in a cape and helped almost off the stage until he springs to life and returns to shred his lungs some more. But that bit requires going all in, and this pallid attempt serves neither as a humorous parody nor as a sincere tribute to that star.
A game show take-off, complete with audience participation, also falls flat. At this performance, the only funny line came unintentionally from the audience participant, Sarah, who said she loved to travel everywhere. Emcee Holly Daye (Terica Marie) asked where she went on her last trip and Sarah replied, "Lancaster, Pennsylvania." Biggest laugh of the night.
Indeed, this show also aims to travel everywhere and touch everyone, but it keeps ending up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. There are good to excellent voices throughout the ten-person cast, but they are continually undermined by many of Webb and Thompson's lyrics, studded with prosaic rhyme schemes.
The most successful song in the show is "Come On Home," a rich R&B anthem sung by the only character with a recognizably human name, Marsha Strivers. It is directed at her soldier-husband serving in the Middle East and is sung with genuine passion and skill by Marianna Whyte as Marsha. But it is undermined by clumsy staging that doesn't capture the emotion intended.
Many of the show's shortfalls land on director and choreographer Christopher Windom, who never manages to encourage his players to take some chances with the bland material. Somehow, these ten actors, along with five band members who interact now and then, remain anonymous ciphers as they slowly sink into the soggy script.
It all builds to the The Lighting of the Tinselville Tree. Wow! Is it a giant 25-foot tree that appears in a puff of smoke, loaded with colorful lights that blast the delighted audience while paying off the theme of bringing light to dark places? Well, no. Turns out it's a ten-foot tree, rolled out on a four-foot table. And when its tiny lights are flipped on, you can barely tell the difference.
All in all, it's an appropriate finale to a show that strangles itself on an excess of forced frivolity when a little more genuine heart would have helped.
LIGHT IT UP
Through December 22 at the Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., clevelandplayhouse.com, 216-241-6000.