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    Saturday, June 03, 2023

    Review: New musical at Goodspeed offers a very merry ‘Christmas’

    The cast of “Christmas In Connecticut” at Goodspeed. (Diane Sobolewski)
    Audrey Cardwell, center, is surrounded by, from left, Julie Kavanagh, Rachel Lyn Fobbs and Emily Larger in Goodspeed’s “Christmas in Connecticut.” (Diane Sobolewski)
    James Judy and Tina Stafford in “Christmas in Connecticut” at Goodspeed. (Diane Sobolewski)
    From left, Raymond J. Lee, Melvin Tunstall III and Audrey Cardwell in “Christmas in Connecticut” at Goodspeed. (Diane Sobolewski)
    From left, Melvin Tunstall III, Brendan McGrady, Matthew Curiano and Josh Breckenridge in Goodspeed’s “Christmas in Connecticut.” (Diane Sobolewski)

    “Christmas in Connecticut” is bringing happy holidays to Goodspeed audiences, with the emphasis on happy.

    This stage musical, which has its world premiere now at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, is upbeat and appealing. It has its share of farce-happy comic confusion alongside seasonal atmosphere and sentiments.

    The show boasts some cheeky tunes, too; “Catch the Ornament” is a silly romp about a holiday tradition, and it’s a crowd-pleaser, as is “Blame It on the Old Magoo,” about the effects of a strong cocktail. And the show concludes with a compassionate, contemplative song, the absolutely lovely “May You Inherit.”

    The tale is set in 1943-44 New England — first in a business-focused, bustling New York City and then in a rustic farmhouse in Connecticut. Liz Sandor (played by Audrey Cardwell) comes to the Big Apple with the hopes of writing about the modern woman, but male bosses have other ideas. She ends up penning a supposedly autobiographical homemaker column, which becomes hugely popular. There’s only one problem: She’s making it all up. She’s not married. She doesn’t have a baby. And she can’t cook.

    When her unwitting publisher and a war hero who is a Liz fan want to visit her home for Christmas, Liz has to figure out how to fool them into thinking she is the woman portrayed in her columns.

    This “Christmas in Connecticut” was inspired by the 1945 Warner Bros. film of the same name, but it’s actually quite different. Patrick Pacheco and Erik Forrest Jackson adapted the piece, and Jason Howland and Amanda Yesnowitz created the songs. Amy Anders Corcoran directs the production.

    The stage version has added some central figures to the cast and has changed the relationship between others. It also packs in more plotlines and weaves in modern political and social views. There are discussions about the have-nots versus the haves, prompted by a socialist farmer; a gay relationship; and a much more expansive view of women’s independence and power. Some of those inclusions feel more effortful than others.

    The comic approach is also broader onstage than in the film, which starred Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan.

    A lot of musicals tend to burst with fun and creativity in the first act and then lose steam as they have to tie up all the plot points in the second act. “Christmas in Connecticut” is an exception. It feels a little prosaic at the start but builds consistently as it goes along. The fizziest, funniest sequence is in Act 2, when everything goes full farce during a night where the power goes out; doors slam, identities are mistaken, and characters end up realizing who their true love is.

    The cast

    Audrey Cardwell shines as Liz, bringing a 21st-century edge to the 1940s image of an independent woman. She’s warmhearted but nobody’s fool. Her bantering with the male character who is destined to be her match is rat-a-tat-tat. And her singing? Glorious. (Interesting side note: Earlier this year, Cardwell subbed in for star Sutton Foster in “The Music Man” on Broadway opposite Hugh Jackman.)

    This cast as a group has the strongest voices of any recent Goodspeed collective I can recall. Truly, it’s across the board.

    Melvin Tunstall III blusters appropriately as Liz’s proudly capitalist publisher, and his singing is potent, especially on the number “A Capital Idea.” Tunstall is so good, it’s hard to believe he started out just understudying the part. He ended up taking over the role at least temporarily for Ed Dixon, who is currently on leave for personal reasons.

    Josh Breckenridge infuses his war hero role with an endearing goofball edge. (The script gives him the character trait of being directionally challenged, which is eventually revealed as a significant plot point.) Breckenridge brings serious vocal chops to songs like “American Dream.”

    Raymond J. Lee melds perpetual, Don Knotts-ian nerves as Liz’ editor, Dudley Beecham, with a confident and handsome singing voice.

    Dudley’s brother Victor is the aforementioned socialist farmer, portrayed by Matt Bogart with a mix of machismo and idealism. A lot relies on his chemistry with Cardwell, and their bickering sparks with romantic attraction. (Although I could have done without their flirting with each other as Liz learns how to milk a cow …)

    In the movie version of “Christmas in Connecticut,” chef Felix, played by S.Z. Sakall, has a lot of screen time and steals every scene he is in. James Judy might have less to do here, but he does it quite well. Especially effective is his relationship with the house’s frazzled housekeeper, portrayed by the talented Tina Stafford. Stafford makes good use of a running gag in which she ties string to her finger to remind herself of the various lies she’s asked to tell by Liz and the gang.

    Judy and Stafford duet on the song “Blame It on the Old Magoo” and it’s endearing — one of the show’s best numbers.

    I wish that Rashidra Scott, who starred in “Anything Goes” at Goodspeed in 2016, had more to do in “Christmas in Connecticut” as magazine fact-checker Gladys. Scott oozes star quality, whether she’s playing the sleuth trying to figure out what’s really going on or whether she’s singing the slyly comic “Something’s Fishy.”

    “Christmas in Connecticut” doesn’t have a lot of dancing, but the ensemble provides some steps along the way, as well as honeyed harmonies. Especially rousing is the tap bonanza during the song “The Most Famous Jefferson”; kudos to choreographer Marjorie Failoni on that.


    WHAT: “Christmas in Connecticut”

    WHEN: Through Dec. 30; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wed., 2 and 7:30 p.m. Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri., 3 and 8 p.m. Sat. and 2 p.m. Sun.

    WHERE: Goodspeed Musicals, 6 Main St., East Haddam

    TICKETS: $30-$80

    CONTACT: (860) 873-8668, goodspeed.org

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