It might be the season for holiday chestnuts, but Circa's current production of Winter Wonderland, written by Brad Hauskins and arranged by Linda Brinkerhoff, gives a refreshing twist to many holiday favorites as a family searches for an old-fashioned Christmas experience.
Allen is frustrated by the lack of meaning for Christmas in his family life, so he brings his wife, Mary Ann, and his daughter, Natalie, to a place he has a vague recollection of visiting as a child. He hopes to share warm, boyhood memories with his daughter, who refuses to call him Dad or allow him to cut down a Christmas tree because of the damage it does to the environment. And when Ed, the unusual proprietor of Winter Wonderland, arrives with his three helpers, a marvelous journey through decades of Christmases begins.
Circa '21 is able to bring extremely gifted performers to Quad City audiences, and the cast of Winter Wonderland is no exception. Nathan Johnson gives the character of Allen a real sense of innocent joy as he shows his daughter aspects of Christmas she's never seen. Kelly Hackett is darling as Ed's wife, and newcomer Bridget Gray brings a maturity to her performance of Natalie that is well beyond her years. Together, these three create a family that is fun to watch and listen to, and their combined vocal talents are quite a musical force.
Some might remember Derek Whittaker from his marvelous performance as Pastor Oglethorpe in Circa's fall production of Smoke on the Mountain, and as Ed in this production, Whittaker shines in a role that gives Santa quite a modern look. Kerri Cammack, Betsy McGovern, and Adam Clough play Ed's helpers, and the four of them treat Allen and his family to several decades of Christmas celebrations. Cammack, McGovern, and Clough can't possibly remember the '60s or '70s, but their portrayals of hippies at Christmas are just too funny.
Teresa Stephens and Tom Walljasper play Doris and Hal, who just happen to wander into Winter Wonderland, but end up accompanying Allen and his family on Ed's ride through the past. Their number, "The Doris and Hal Show," is a wonderful take on Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First" routine, with a Christmas theme.
Costuming this holiday ride through nine decades took research and creativity, and designer Erika Conner did a fabulous job in bringing the flavor of each decade's fashions to the stage. The cast does an even better job with the fast costume changes, never missing a beat.
Musical Director Linda Brinkerhoff also deserves praise for arranging many classic Christmas numbers to fit beautifully with specific decades. "Winter Wonderland Ad" has a wonderfully modern rap base that had the audience laughing.
The lighting design is my only complaint. While the majority of the time the lighting highlighted the bright and sparkling moments in Winter Wonderland, there were too many occasions when the actors' faces were obscured in shadow, and it was difficult to see their expressions as they interacted with each other and the audience.
But overall, Winter Wonderland is a delightful place to spend a winter evening, especially when the weather outside is frightful.