One thing about seeing a show like It’s a Wonderful Christmas-ish Holiday Miracle: it will leave you with plenty of cognitive space to think about other things the next day.
Right off the top of Marcus Youssef’s script, Esther introduces herself. She had Alzheimer’s when she was alive but she’s been dead for about a year now, waiting in line to get into the afterlife, an inefficient bureaucracy that looks like Maui.
When Esther finally gets to the border, an agent named Salena refuses her entry because Esther has “unresolved conflict and estrangement.” (If that was a criterion, no one on Earth would get into the afterlife, but anyway.) Although Esther has her reason back, she doesn’t have her memory, so she doesn’t know what Salena’s talking about. But, because we’ve been watching scenes involving Esther’s surviving family, we know that the estrangement is between Esther and her daughter Miriam. We also know that Miriam’s recent divorce from her husband Steven has upset their young son Simon and especially their budding teenager Chloe. Most disturbingly, we know that we’re going to have to wait all night for this thing to resolve itself happily.
Fortunately, Act 1 provides a couple of distractions while it delays the inevitable. Ghazal Azarbad’s Salena is fantastic. When she was alive, Salena was a hedge fund manager and Azarbad gives her an unexpectedly persuasive combination of tenderness and self-serving aspiration. She also spins every damn line for everything it’s worth. And Matreya Scarrwener is excellent as Chloe. Chloe is deliberately written as a teen cliché — “You don’t understand-uh!”: Scarrwener doesn’t just mine all of the available comedy, she also underlays it with compelling feeling. And, of course, Nicola Lipman is charming as Esther. How could she not be? She’s Nicola Lipman.
But there’s a lot of goofy stuff, too. In a device that set my teeth on edge, Chloe’s little brother Simon expresses his feelings through his pet stick bug Ralphie: “Ralphie can’t sleep”, etcetera. As written, Simon feels like he’s about five, but Glen Gordon, who’s playing him, is not, he’s much older than that, which magnifies the saccharine nature of the convention.
And the songs that keep popping up are a waste of time. Written by Sufjian Stevens, they contain lyrics so pedestrian they need shoes: “We can walk out after dark because it’s Christmastime/Light flows from the park because it’s Christmastime.” These musical numbers don’t advance the story or reveal the characters’ inner emotional realities. There are other ways to cover scene changes. And Anton Lipovetsky’s musical direction and sound design are so spindly the songs get lost in Lauchlin Johnston’s set, a huge stack of silver-wrapped Christmas presents that’s far, far too wide.
Because things finally start to happen, Act 2 is better than Act 1. In a convention that’s too complicated to explain, Esther and her grandchildren have to negotiate a video game if she’s going to regain her memory. In the highlight of the evening, they encounter the video game versions of Mary and Joseph. When they’re in rest mode, Mary keeps repeating, “What are we going to do with the myrrh?”
In playwriting, the easiest way to resolve a conflict is to have a character say “I’m sorry.” The resolution of It’s a Wonderful Christmas-ish Holiday Miracle is an orgy of apologies and subsequent I-love-yous. I’m not saying it isn’t touching. There’s a trio of very fine actors up there givin’ ‘er: Lipman, Scarrwener, and Jennifer Lines, who’s playing Miriam. Still, the writing here is lazy and indulgent: it’s not the culmination of a nuanced or well-observed story, it’s just hitting generic buttons.
If this review seems harsh, I’m sorry. I love you.
IT’S A WONDERFUL CHRISTMAS-ISH HOLIDAY MIRACLE By Marcus Youssef. Featuring music from Songs for Christmas and by Sufjian Sevens. Directed by Chelsea Haberlin. An Arts Club Theatre production. On the Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre on Wednesday, November 27. Continues until December 22. Tickets.
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