Here are three basic kinds of Christmas shows. First, there are the grownup specials, which are usually comedies like A Tuna Christmas or The Santaland Diaries. These shows lean heavily toward the naughty side of Santa's checklist. Second, there's the sophisticated children's show intended to be "fun for the whole family." These shows, which are often acted by adults, may or may not be Christmas-themed. The topnotch A Year with Frog and Toad at Circuit Playhouse has but one Christmas-related scene and is an excellent example of this second kind of holiday extravaganza.
The third type of Christmas show is, of course, the classic children's pageant, which features a large cast of kids whose moms, dads, grams, uncles, cousins, school chums, and crushes fork over the full price of admission in order to see little Suzy say her piece.
This third category is well represented by Germantown Community Theatre's generally competent and occasionally surprising production of Madeline's Christmas, a rambling one-act musical kinda-sorta based on Ludwig Bemelmans' beloved children's books. The theater's happy little skit is exactly the type of production guaranteed to make family members bust their buttons with pride while having something of the opposite effect on unrelated ticketholders.
It's hard to understand why anybody would choose to adapt Madeline's Christmas for the stage ... well, except for the time-proven bankability of the title character, of course. The convoluted story wasn't originally published as a freestanding book but as an insert in McCall's magazine, and the story of Madeline's Christmas Eve encounter with an exotic wizard is generally regarded as an odd and certainly minor addition to Bemelmans' series. Unlike most holiday tales, it has nothing to do with Santa, reindeer, or the birth of the Christian messiah. And unlike all the other Madeline stories, it doesn't even rhyme. Stranger still, for a tale set in a convent school, Madeline's Christmas is chock full of good old-fashioned pagan magic.
The story — if you can call it a story — begins with a wintertime visit to the zoo, where Sister Clavel and all of her young charges catch a nasty cold that prevents them from traveling home for Christmas. Only the precocious, adventurous Madeline is immune to the bug. On Christmas Eve, a creepy old man named Harsha uses his magic powers to heal the sick children and sells them magic carpets for flying home. And although it doesn't end there exactly, that's about all there is to Madeline's Christmas.
Chandler Keen is appropriately spunky as the little redheaded girl in the round yellow hat, and her prematurely husky voice is well suited to the (unfortunately prerecorded) music.
Bo List and Kerry Strahm's set design reflects the color and line of Bemelmans' illustrations, but it also looks as though it might have been produced on a budget of just under $7. There's nothing wrong with a simple, well-conceived performance space, but this particular set pushes the boundaries of acceptable.
Madeline's Christmas isn't without merit. The show's centerpiece finds Madeline and her 11 schoolmates flying over Paris on magic carpets. This bit of stage magic is accomplished using a backlight and simple but effective puppets.
Veteran actress Irene Crist has a reputation for playing strong, sassy, and brassy women. She's not particularly well known as a director, and Madeline's Christmas is unlikely to change that. Nevertheless, it's good to see an artist of Crist's caliber taking a chance working way out east.
In 1939, the original Madeline series began with the line "In an old house in Paris all covered in vines, lived 12 little girls in two straight lines." Almost 70 years later, Crist pays homage to that first line and revels in the chaotic symmetry of Bemelmans' wonderfully yellow illustrations. But with a script this weak, there's only so much you can do.
Through December 23rd at Germantown Community Theatre