Christmas in wartime America—but it’s the First World War, and the administration is set to declare a moratorium on toy sales to encourage families to buy Liberty Bonds.
Up to the plate steps A.C. Gilbert, toymaker of New Haven (whose Erector and chemistry sets appeared beneath many a tree in childhood for those now of a certain age) vigorously defending the joys—and toys—of the season, exhorting the Scroogelike bureaucrats to relive their own childhood through making young ones happy, those who are waiting for their fathers to come home from “Over There.”
That’s the unusual historical hook for Ron Lytle’s original holiday musical, The Man Who Saved Christmas, at Alameda’s Altarena Playhouse for its second holiday season, this year’s production even more brisk and upbeat than the last.
Hook it is, with a love story more nostalgic than old-fashioned hanging from it, which exercises the song-and-dance skills of a mostly new, enthusiastic cast.
Nephi Speer plays the part of Johnny Eli, a young newspaper reporter (but one without vocation, as he later confesses), who seems to be barking up the wrong tree for a story, as Miss Alice Finch (Lisa Otterstetter), Gilbert’s busy personal secretary, firmly tries to convince him. It seems that the toy magnate whom Johnny wishes to interview has it in for “the honorable gentlemen of the Fourth Estate.” But Alice’s words—and visage—only rekindle Johnny’s ardor, and through a chain of musical comedy circumstances, he finds himself invited to join the company by the dynamic, if sanguine, Gilbert (a Teddy Roosevelt-ish Scott Phillips)—much to the chagrin of Dixon (John Erreca), the comic villain plant manager, who’s also enamored of Alice.
The home front wartime theme crops up too in the Gilberts’ home, where Mrs. Gilbert (Jenifer Tice) cares for her precocious niece (Zooey Brandt), whose father is in France—and, unbeknownst to the little girl who dreams he’ll be home for Yuletide—missing in action.
Speer puts a charming spin on Johnny, who could easily be just a bland, hail-fellow-well-met type, and gracefully paired with Overstetter, the romantic angle of the musical is secured. The return of Scott Phillips as Gilbert is fortunate; he’s got the drive and eccentricity of his enthusiast toymaker down pat. “Poppycock and balderdash!” he says.
Jenifer Tice also returns this year as Mrs. Mary Gilbert, gentle counterpart, even a little bittersweet, to Phillips’ bluster. Erreca’s Dixon is all pop-eyes and gesticulations, a little bit the operetta ogre, especially when tormented by the seemingly ever-present kids, who provide the solution to the conundrum the busy grownups get all balled up in.
There’s an ensemble of nine, including three kids, who exuberantly trade off parts, from newsboys yelling “Extra!” to doughboys saying good-bye to their families, to the harried factory workers, as well as the council of cabinet officers Gilbert and Eli approach for a rescission of the edict for a toyless Christmas.
Tom Shaw directs a lively mostly ragtime-flavored ensemble in the flies. Lytle himself stage-directs. His songs are more than serviceable, and some evoke the period reasonably well, as do Alice’s various dresses and gowns, though there are occasional anachronistic howlers in the dialogue, more fitting in postmodern corporate America than during the Wilson administration.
The Man Who Saved Christmas runs over two hours but is briskly paced; the children in the audience at the matinee last Sunday were attentive throughout. It’s a tip of the homburg to the nostalgic musicals of 50 years ago, of Meredith Willson, minus the lingering traces of Shaw. There’s plenty of holiday spirit on Altarena’s set, enormous Christmas presents that unwrap into the toy factory and the Gilbert family parlor.
THE MAN WHO SAVED CHRISTMAS
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 16 at the Altarena Playhouse, 1409 High St., Alameda.
$17-$20. 523-1553. www.altarena.org.
Photograph by Patrick Tracy.
Jenifer Tice as Mary Gilbert and Scott Phillips as toymaker A.C. Gilbert in Ron Lytle’s family musical The Man Who Saved Christmas currently playing at the Altarena Playhouse through Dec 16.