With all of the Scrooges, Sugar Plum Fairies, Christmas-tree schooners and acerbic reindeer selling tickets elsewhere, you have to credit northwest Indiana's Theatre at the Center with having the nerve to stage a new musical — books and lyrics by Sean Grennan, music by Leah Okimoto — for the peak holiday season. And with hiring Hollis Resnik, fresh from "Follies," no less, to play the lead.
That said, it may come as a surprise to the busloads of theatergoers who pack this popular Equity theater at this time of year, and who will doubtless be attracted to a title like "Another Night Before Christmas," to see its massive stage occupied by a cast of two: Resnik and Don Forston. Well, there is a recession on, but this particular new musical, aimed at adults, would be better suited to a swift, 90-minute telling in a cabaret-style space. Even though the Theatre at the Center has built a massive set — replete with a model train running on an elevated track — the show feels slight in this big theater. And very, very predictable.
If you know the characters of Doris Walker and Kris Kringle in the movie "Miracle on 34th Street," you'll know the plot. Resnik's Karol, a divorced Chicago social worker, is essentially an updating of Doris, albeit without daughter Susan. She's a sour secularist and dyed-in-the-wool bah-humbug-er at the top of the show when she encounters a character known as The Guy (Forston), apparently a smelly homeless man but maybe you-know-who. He shows up at lonely Karol's home and the rest of the first act consists mostly of an "I don't believe in you," "You should believe in me" back-and-forth exchange that feels interminable. Finally, The Guy shows his stuff and — spoiler alert — Karol caves.
Grennan may have borrowed the basic plot device of "Miracle on 34th Street." (To Grennan's credit, his hipster Santa does make self-aware mention of the movie.) But he has not come up with an equivalent series of complications — partly because he doesn't have any more characters to break the monotony or freshen the scene. I passed some of the time Sunday night thinking about how brilliantly that great movie ratchets up the tension — and, by contrast, how this well-meaning attempt at a low-cost Christmas musical gets fatally trapped in circular repetition.
Sure, some sense of knowing where a show is going is acceptable at Christmas, when happy endings are de rigueur, but this show badly needs an injection of sophistication. It seems to presume that eggnog has addled the audience's brain. Every joke and setup is hit so many times, all of the spontaneity is squelched. Here's a case in point: There's a gag wherein Karol's voice-recognition alarm keeps getting her name wrong. Again and again and again. Yet it only takes us the first time to figure out that she will be addressed correctly if she can only come to believe in Santa. Every instance thereafter is like nails on a chalkboard.
There are, certainly, a few sweet numbers from Okimoto about lonely urban Christmases, and they're well-sung by Resnik. (The show, though, is underscored.) Forston does his best with some clunking dialogue, and the climax of the show is quite effective. But in director William Pullinsi's production, it's a long Christmas ride to get there.
When: Through Dec. 18
Where: Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge Road, Munster, Ind.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes