I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Hallmark movie, but if they’re half as fun as Chris, Mrs., I’ll have to give my holidays over to their red-and-green grasp.
Boldly Productions’ world premiere musical comedy, written by company founders Katie Kerr and Matthew Stodolak, takes direct inspiration from the network’s popular films. Though it features corny Christmas puns enough to pack Santa’s sleigh, the musical’s vibe is overwhelmingly earnest, filling the Winter Garden Theatre with a great deal of heart — far more, anyway, than the vast majority of commercial musicals that play Toronto. Though the Kerr-directed production has a touch of roughness to it, a huge team stuffed with skilled local talent ensures Boldly’s debut show sparkles.
Chris, Mrs. concerns ad executive Ben Chris (Liam Tobin), a lovable father but self-proclaimed holiday grinch. He’s told that if he sells his parents’ old mountain lodge, now run by brother Charlie (Kale Penny), it’ll earn him a promotion — so he journeys up from the city, grabs a room, and starts working to make it happen.
With him come his three motherless kids (AJ Bridel, plus child actors Lucien Duncan-Reid and Addison Wagman at the performance I attended), who spend much of the show preoccupied with an engagement ring found in their father’s luggage. They become convinced he’s going to propose to his girlfriend Vicki (Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane), an idea that terrifies them: “she’s evil,” they say!
Act One is delightfully messy, a gaggle of plots slipping sneakered around an ice rink. The smile of young heartthrob Cole (Andrew Broderick, in a supreme comic turn) sends the local teenagers running in flustered circles, we get tons of time with the kids, and Santa (Mark Weatherley) even makes a few winking appearances (because, yes — magic isn’t a deus ex machina if you have its conjuror walk across the stage several times before he resolves the plot).
In Act Two, everything’s neater, more streamlined, and with a clear focus: the romance between Ben and Holly (Danielle Wade), a Christmas lover who works at the inn on a seasonal basis. At first, I thought the show was headed for a convoluted, Anything Goes-type conclusion, where several plots climax at once, but, as the show’s title admittedly hints, our final destination is rom-com land.
The score is musical theatre all the way down. Perhaps because many winter radio standards are by composers from Broadway’s golden age (Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” Jerry Herman’s “We Need A Little Christmas”), that’s one of the primary idioms at play here — jazzy tunes well-sold by a small but sprightly band including trombone (Karl Silveira) and trumpet (Steve McDade). But there are also splashes of pop-rock, like the 9 to 5-esque “What You’ve Missed.” And Tobin’s solo “The Great Snowy Owl” is an obvious homage to “The Schmuel Song” from The Last Five Years (both have their singer playfully recount a winding story over a Klezmer-inspired chord progression).
Choreographer Sarah Vance delivers athletic jazz choreography in the Warren Carlyle vein, while Kerr stages scenes clearly, at a punchy pace (runtime is two hours and 30 minutes, with an intermission). Fuzzier are moments mixing dialogue and song — there, Kerr’s need to tell the story and Vance’s desire to entertain seem to clash, leading to the occasional lost line or unclear image.
Though Cory Sincennes’ snowglobe set is cleverly conceived, the show’s design looks noticeably cheaper than is typically effective for a commercial musical. But spending money on a 17-person cast packed with Shaw and Stratford Festival vets rather than luxurious costumes is a great trade-off: they keep Chris, Mrs. not just afloat but aflight. Tobin and Sinclair-Brisbane, in particular, do much to shepherd their underwritten characters into the categories of romantic leading man and villain, respectively. And audience members missing Ross Petty’s old holiday antics will be glad to see pantomime regular Bridel here in all her belting glory.
The best thing about Chris, Mrs. is its sense of play. Watching an experienced cast go wild on this campy material is a delight — and I’d argue that the musical’s slight lack of polish is actually what makes it interesting; its vibe starkly contrasts the tours that arrive in Toronto with expensive aesthetics but no spark. So, yes: all I want for Christmas is to see Chris, Mrs. again.
Chris, Mrs. runs at the Winter Garden Theatre until December 31. Tickets are available here.
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