If you’re looking for a joyful way to feel a little extra Christmas-y this holiday season, might I suggest Santa Claus: The Musical at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse? This one-hour children’s-theatre offering packs a solid punch of yuletide warmth, and no matter how old you are, I wager you will appreciate this charming little tale.
With its book by Noah Putterman and music and lyrics by David Christensen and Luke Holloway, the Santa Claus storyline is one that's likely familiar: Santa (Janos Horvath) is finally ready to retire after 1,000 years, so he plans to set up his replacement over the next year, with the goal of training him to be ready in time for next Christmas. But the tale takes on a new twist when Henchy (an incredibly endearing Marc Christopher), one of Santa’s elves, finds himself wishing he were the replacement, and decides to sabotage the new guy.
The strength of this peppy production comes from the upbeat energy and dance moves courtesy of director/choreographer Ashley Becher, with Santa Claus' trio of girl elves Tenchy, Chirpy, and Punchy (respectively played by Kirsten Sindelar, Taylor Lynn, and Savannah Bay Strandin) a hoot throughout the production. Dressed to impress in reds and greens by costume designer Bradley Robert Jensen, Becher's crew of elves hits every mark and, frankly, made the entire show more enjoyable just by being on stage and appearing to have a jolly good time. Becher’s choreography, meanwhile, is excellent – probably the best I’ve seen in an area presentation all year. I was genuinely impressed by this show, and even more so given that the cast seemed to be outwardly enjoying themselves and embracing the holiday spirit. At no point during Saturday afternoon’s performance did anyone seem to be phoning it in.
It can be difficult when casting an iconic role such as Santa, but Horvath is undoubtedly up to the task – and boy does he ever look the well-known part. In fact, when the new guy Nick (Bobby Becher) goes through his Santa transformation, it’s almost a letdown, because his padding and fake beard just don’t feel as put together as any of Horvath’s looks; even his Santa warm-up suit is fantastic. However, Bobby is a super-likable Nick, making it difficult to see why Henchy felt such disdain for him, as his winning attitude likely could have ultimately won him over. (Alas, poor Henchy’s jealousy got the best of him.) Nick and his daughter Beatrice, alternately played by Ellerie Hurley and Chloe Knobloch, need a lot of help adjusting to the new normal of being Santa, and while the other elves and Mrs. Claus (a wise Sarah Hayes) offer plenty of sage advice and guidance, Henchy opts to instead wreak havoc.
As far as Christmas villains go, Christopher’s Henchy is a delightful one. His mischief was (small spoiler alert) easily overcome and his positive character growth throughout the production was heartwarming to watch. The biggest lessons of Santa Claus came from watching Henchy’s side of the story unfold: Whether you’ve ever gotten your hopes up to ultimately end up disappointed or you maybe attempted to manipulate a situation to get your own way, Henchy is going to be relatable.
I will say that the original music in Santa Claus was upbeat and catchy but also easily forgettable; a day after seeing the show, I can’t recall a single song by name. But since Christmas already comes with its own built-in soundtrack, it doesn’t much matter that there’s no true earworm here. Also on Saturday, I felt the orchestral track was a little loud and the mics were a little too soft at times, which made the music additionally unmemorable; it was difficult to make out exact lyrics.
However, Santa Claus makes great use of the mainstage production's White Christmas set pieces, adding a Santa’s-workshop twist. Director Becher and Nicholas DiVarco teamed up as set designers and added two television monitors that, from time to time, provided entertaining video images that were especially effective during the “Sleigh Simulator” portion of Nick’s training, plus other bits of technology that effectively take Santa’s Workshop to the year 2022. (Fun fact: The naughty-and-nice list is now stored in the cloud, which would certainly be more convenient for a one-night worldwide trip.)
All in all, Santa Claus: The Musical is a dandy little show for all ages that is sure to make your spirits bright. Whether you opt to join the elves in the reindeer dance (audience participation is definitely encouraged) or are more of a stay-in-your-seat theatre patron, this family-friendly production is engaging, and you’ll give yourself a gift when you gather your family and take time to make the Christmas children’s show at Circa ‘21 part of your festive traditions.
Santa Claus: The Musical runs at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (1828 Third Avenue, Rock Island IL) through December 18, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)786-7733 extension 2 and visiting Circa21.com.