The Secret Santa—this year's holiday extravaganza at the Gaslight Theatre—has a lot in common with Christmas itself: Grinches and Scrooges may find themselves in agony, but both the holiday and this production hold plenty of wide-eyed delight for the young at heart.
The Secret Santa would never be labeled "the greatest story ever told." It borrows plot elements and stock characters from every TV holiday special since Year 1. Santa's new sleigh has technical difficulties, and when he and an elf land in Merryville, they save a toy factory from a ruthless businessman who hates Christmas.
But, like the nativity story, a Gaslight show is never really about the plot. (Psst: Don't tell anyone, but the hero wins every time.) In melodrama, you have the good guy, the bad guy, the fair maiden and the sidekicks, and the fun is in seeing how the familiar story gets dressed up in new finery each time it's told.
Just as brightly wrapped presents build anticipation before Christmas morning, the Gaslight venue is a delight before the play even begins. The tiny lights strung through the rafters of the saloon-style interior twinkle merrily, and the waitresses have exchanged Halloween's Transylvanian dirndl costumes for outfits of the North Pole variety, striped in candy-cane colors.
In the corner by the stage, the house band pounds out familiar holiday carols (with sing-along lyrics printed conveniently in the program). On the night I attended, music director Linda Ackermann was on duty at the piano. With Blake Matthies on guitar and Jon Westfall on drums, Ackermann belts out familiar songs as her fingers fly across the keys. Her boogie-woogie arrangement of "The Skaters' Waltz" during intermission is spectacular.
The wrapping comes off as the lights dim and the curtain flies up to reveal the first of Tom Benson's sets. Benson has been with the Gaslight since its inception more than 30 years ago, and knows his craft: He creates fine-quality, old-fashioned, deliberately hokey set pieces. Among his finest theatrical tricks in The Secret Santa is a toboggan race he conjures up onstage.
Of course, no holiday celebration would be complete without a hearty serving of Christmas ham, which, in this case, is provided in abundance by writer/director Peter Van Slyke and his usual gang of high-energy performers.
Two or three actors are assigned to most roles, so there's no telling who you'll be seeing on a given night. But the Gaslight's performers are consistently strong and always seem to be having as good of a time as the audience.
One pleasure on the night I attended was seeing familiar faces in unfamiliar roles. David Fanning, often cast in lead roles because of his towering height, here plays sidekick Buster with the eager dopiness of a lost character from Strange Brew. Joe Cooper, who typically steals the show as one of the sidekicks, this time steals the show as the cigar-chomping corporate villain, C.C. Cogsworth.
Mike Yarema plays Franklin P. Coolidge, the romantic lead, as a gawky nerd, with hiked-up pants, bulky glasses and a bowtie. Todd Thompson and Katherine Byrnes are delightful as Biff Wellington and Cindy Lou Culpepper, a pair of self-aggrandizing TV reporters. David Orley makes an excellent Santa Claus, with Tarreyn Van Slyke as his oh-so-good-hearted elfin niece, Holly.
One surprise in this production was the selection of songs. Gaslight characters ordinarily burst out singing familiar pop songs or golden oldies, tweaked just enough to connect with the plot. This time, however, the song list includes a surprising number of uncommon Christmas gems. Standouts include Faith Hill's moving "Where Are You, Christmas?" sung by Sarah Vanek Stellmon, and "Noise, Noise, Noise," belted out by Sean MacArthur.
With the story set in the 1960s, costumers Maryann Trombino and Renee Cloutier have decked the cast in in holiday finery, ranging from stylish caped jackets and leisure suits to money-green accessories for the villains and jarring layered plaids for the goofier characters.
The period setting also allows for some fun group dances from choreographers Vanek Stellmon and Thompson. Among the dances: The hand jive, the twist and the frug. The period seems chosen primarily for its nostalgic value; after all, the wealthy factory owner threatening to close up shop because all that matters is "the bottom line" might cut a little too close to home in a contemporary setting. As it is, C.C. Cogsworth earns vigorous boos from children and adults alike when he declares that the shutdown is "not about the people; it's about the money."
It's funny, but somehow, the usual Gaslight cheering and booing this time seemed like a kind of carol sing-along. The cheers that greeted the phrase, "It'll be a swell Christmas!" seemed only to grow louder with each repetition (and it was repeated a lot), as if the audience were trying to will it so through collective faith.
Personally, I find it miraculous that, in an age of mobile gadgetry and jaded skepticism, something so insistently old-fashioned and corny as the Gaslight Theatre continues to have such an enthusiastic, cross-generational following in our community. It's our very own Christmas miracle.