Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Christmas in Connecticut: Trimming a Moldy Tree

Matt Bogart, Audrey Cardwell and Josh Breckenridge in Christmas in Connecticut. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Christmas in Connecticut shows up on TV every holiday season, but that doesn’t make it a classic. This Jell-o-bland 1945 comedy sits on a wobbly premise. An emphatically undomesticated magazine writer (played by Barbara Stanwyck) writes a fictitious column that presents her as a family woman cooking gourmet meals for her husband on a picturesque Connecticut farm. Her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet, looking like he knows how badly miscast he is), somehow ignorant of the truth, that she’s a single New Yorker who dines in restaurants, compels her to invite a war hero (the hopelessly bland Dennis Morgan) home for Christmas. Since her steady suitor (Reginald Gardiner) just happens to own a farm in Connecticut and she and her editor (Robert Shayne) are friendly with a gifted local chef (S.Z. Sakall), they decide to try to pull off an elaborate charade. Except for Stanwyck, who gives the tepid material the old college try, no one associated with the picture – not the director, Peter Godfrey, or the writers, Lionel Houser and Adele Comandini – could be called remotely distinguished.

The notion of turning Christmas in Connecticut into a stage musical feels desperate, but it’s December and after all, there is a limited number of holiday-themed properties. The result, at the Goodspeed Opera House, is a bargain-basement confection that, like the movie, is set just after World War II but has been tricked up to look like it passes the woke test with the addition of a socialistic naysayer and a gay couple. The book by Patrick Pacheco and Erik Forrest Jackson is even worse than the original screenplay, and the score by Jason Howland (music) and Amanda Yesnowitz (lyrics) is forced and worn from the opening number, which recycles ideas from Leonard Bernstein and Comden and Green’s Wonderful Town. Seven of the eight songs in the first act are belters, culminating in a stupefying novelty number called “Catch the Ornament,” in which the protagonist, Liz (Audrey Cardwell), and her Hungarian chef buddy, Felix (James Judy), invent a game to occupy the ill-fitting dinner guests. Let’s just say that “Catch the Ornament” makes “Turkey Lurkey Time” from Promises, Promises sound like a winner in the holiday-show-songs sweepstakes. Toward the end of act one, they slip in one ballad, “American Dream,” sung by the war vet, Jefferson Jones (Josh Breckenridge), that shifts the tone from fake-cynical to fake-inspirational. We get more of that in the second-act finale, a Christmas hymn titled “May You Inherit.”

Nothing in this show feels right, from the rom-com banter between Liz and the socialist farmer, Victor Beecham (Matt Bogart), who despise each other out of the gate but wind up in each other’s arms by curtain call, to the forgetful housekeeper, Norah (Tina Stafford), who ties red strings around her fingers to remind herself of all the lies that Liz and her co-conspirators, Felix and her editor – Victor’s brother Dudley (Raymond J. Lee) – make her memorize, so she can feed them to Jefferson and the publisher, Yardley (Melvin Tunstall III, standing in for Ed Dixon). Everyone but Yardley gets a romantic partner: Yardley’s assistant, Gladys (Rashidra Scott), falls for Jefferson, Felix woos Norah and Dudley, who grew up on this farm, spends the night with a reformed local bully (Dennis O’Bannion). None of these pairings is convincing for a vaudeville minute.

Cardwell works hard, and she’s comparatively efficient. But some of the acting is awful; it would be kindest not to single out the worst offenders. The direction, by Amy Anders Corcoran, is clumsy, and this is the only time I can remember in three and a half decades of attending Goodspeed shows when I’ve seen one that’s downright ugly to look at. (The sets were designed by Lawrence E. Moten III and the costumes by Herin Kaputkin.) I can’t imagine what the Goodspeed people were thinking.  Their next screen-to-stage adaptation, slated for the summer, will be Summer Stock. I can’t predict the future, but that one’s based on a movie that was pretty good to begin with, and it contains some very likable songs. I’d wait.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.  

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