Theatre Review: Short North Stage’s Krampus: A Yuletide Tale Has Magic to Spare
This may say more about the reviewer than the work being reviewed but original musicals seem like the riskiest theatre to make: a longer lead time; more complex, moving parts; frequently more collaborators; additional expense; and much harder to know if it’s good or not until you actually produce it. Breaking past fatigue on holiday entertainment when these days we seem so saturated with it is also a concern for me. It’s with those caveats that I’m happy to report Nils-Petter Ankarblom and Carrie Gilchrist’s Krampus: A Yuletide Tale opened over the weekend at Short North Stage surprised and delighted me.
This look at the Krampus myth, directed by Carrie Gilchrist, a paganistic companion to Saint Nicholas who enforces the naughty list, is set in an unspecified past in a town in the Alps. In parallel we meet St. Nicholas (Edward Carignan) and Krampus (JJ Parkey) and a hard-scrabble family, a widow, Anna Schlecht (Stephanie Prince) in hock to a demagogic landlord Herr Ulrich (Luke Stewart) and her two enterprising children, Flora (Emma Lou Andrews) and Bruno (William Gorgas). As the holidays approach, desperately trying to sell socks their mother made without much success, the Schlecht children find a wallet and take the money to their mother instead of returning it to its rightful owner.
This, of course, puts the Schlecht children on the list they don’t want to be on and they find themselves transported to Krampus’ den. Something seems amiss, Krampus’ punishments wear off before he returns to put the next amiss and he misses the usual deadline to punish and return children by the next morning which leads to conflict with St. Nicholas. The landlord, Ulrich, remembers being taken by Krampus as a child and, in a reversal, mounts a rescue mission. Among the standard admonishments toward niceness, there’s interesting depth in the book here. Krampus has some fascinating nuance in its look into the symbiosis of St. Nicholas and Krampus and in the folly of an immutable system. There are interesting messages around how far punishment should go and how coldness perpetuates itself. There’s just enough sourness and just enough care for how people really act to keep the sweetness from being saccharine.
Of course, a musical doesn’t work without the songs and, by and large, the songwriting by Ankarblom (music and lyrics) and Gilchrist (lyrics) is great. Occasionally it drifts some, the back to back Ulrich and Anna songs before the climax are a rare dull note in the pacing (though having Ulrich in total darkness under a blue light was an interesting choice) and periodically a song seems to go on for a chorus too long. But in general, the tunes are catchy, nuanced, layered, and played beautifully by Ankanblom on piano accompanied by Nik Repka alternating between violin and viola and Mary Brandal on cello. The chamber music quality of the backing as well as leaning toward waltzes also helped this musical distinguish itself from the pack of Christmas music clichés. As I finish this the next day I still find myself humming several of the numbers.
The cast is just about perfect. Seeing Parkey and Carignan (who also provided some terrific choreography) play off one another is the highlight of the show. Carignan’s take on St. Nicholas as someone doing a job who’s not all that jolly about it, who believes in the sanctity of his list, is fascinating, and Parkey’s chafing under the saint’s rule and starting to question is magnetic. Stewart’s landlord with a crisis of conscience nails the turn the audience needs to buy into for the show to work and his songs are gorgeous. Andrews, in particular, keeps the audience invested in what happens to these children in particular and her repentance isn’t cheesy or too sudden.
There were a few sound issues, occasionally I couldn’t make out lyrics. But Gilchrist’s crisp direction and Carignan’s tiered set (with Abbey Moore on Scenic Change) work very well together. This tight show (around 75 minutes) left me smiling, almost giddy, as I headed back out into the night.
Krampus: A Yuletide Tale runs through December 20th. Shows are at 8:00pm Thursday-Saturday and 3:00pm Sunday. For tickets and more info, please visit shortnorthstage.org.