Like a sweet and spicy shot of eggnog, the Irish Repertory Theatre’s intimate production of A Child’s Christmas in Wales and ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas goes down easy, warms your insides, and leaves you wanting more. This mild and merry show is the perfect festive tonic for this often over-commercialized holiday season. Set in a cozy living room—complete with hearth, stockings, and twinkling trees—the show features five energetic performers who bring spirited life to these classic texts. Director and adapter Charlotte Moore has also cleverly interspersed both new and traditional Christmas music within the stories, showcasing the ensemble’s excellent voices and charming personalities.
Seated on five well-worn easy chairs, the performers share storytelling and singing duties. Justin Packard leads off with an animated retelling of Clement Clark Moore’s ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, which is followed by Dylan Thomas’ ruminative memoir A Child’s Christmas in Wales.
Thomas, a prolific writer best known for his moody poetry, was born in Wales in 1914 and died suddenly, just days after his thirty-ninth birthday. In this personal work, he chronicles the family’s holiday activities and an eccentric cast of characters and traditions: the tipsy and bawdy aunts, mountains of luscious candy, bratty cousins, the bullies up the road, devious pranks, endless meals, and his uncles' voluminous bellies.
Above all, this text taps into Thomas’ vivid imagination and his overwhelming affection for his childhood. Many of his memories are tinged with a foreboding darkness—an ominous touch from the writer whose own life would come to a tragic and untimely end, making the glimmers of brightness even more poignant.
Together, these nostalgic tales form a lovely collage of a young boy’s sense of Christmas—stories of mischief, mirth, and mayhem. There’s not much narrative arc or suspense, but it’s delightful to hear Thomas’ words set into motion. At times, the carols that interrupt the text are a bit jarring, but they also underscore the joy, hope, and spirit of the season.
Musical director John Bell sits at the piano and has stitched together glorious harmonies for the ensemble, the majority of whom appeared in the Irish Repertory’s revival of Meet Me in St. Louis last December.
Bonnie Fraser played Esther, the Judy Garland role, in that production, and it’s a gift to hear her reprise “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in another radiant, glowing incarnation. Fraser discovers fresh depth and meaning in the well-traveled ballad, and she brings genuine warmth to the production. In one of the show’s highlights, she joins Kerry Conte, another crystal-voiced singer, to duet on a re-tooled version of “Sleigh Ride,” which features clever percussive touches and integrates a few splashy melodies from Stephen Sondheim’s perky pastiche “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” (from the musical Company).
Ashley Robinson infuses his readings with a little boy’s wide-eyed incredulity, and he offers a sleek and stunning performance of “Oh, Holy Night.” The charismatic Joshua Park adds excellent comic flourishes throughout and is especially winning in “I Don’t Want a Lot for Christmas,” a quirky patter song that describes an impossibly lengthy Christmas list. Packard anchors the production and provides solid support throughout.
At a brief 70 minutes, this show is an irresistible aperitif for the holiday season. The program is filled with lyrics from a handful of songs which will likely stick in your head long after you’ve left the theater. The show is a rare opportunity to experience an oral storytelling tradition that transcends our modern-day electronic isolation. It concludes with poignant lyrics that invite the audience into the convivial atmosphere: “Take my hand, tomorrow’s Christmas / All over the land and cross the sea / Take my hand, we’ll all be together / All of our friends, and you and me.”