Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Matt Ferguson.
Are you ready for another new Christmas musical about a toy? Well, even if you can’t imagine that there could be anything left to say about the subject in this year of toy-focused shows, you won’t be sorry if you check out Eleanor’s Very Merry Christmas Wish, by Denise McGowan Tracy with songs by the author and Kathleen Butler-Duplessis, at the Greenhouse Theater Center. This adorable little show, aimed at children but fine for the young at heart of all ages, will put a smile on your face and a song in your heart. It may also make you prone to writing cheesy lines like that one, but you won’t care because you’ll feel so warm inside.
Zachary L. Gray directs (and choreographs) Tracy’s story of a rag doll named Eleanor who has spent many, many years living at the North Pole with Santa and his elves, sadly watching each Christmas as other toys depart for treasured new homes. She has a good life, though, and she knows it: no other toy is actually viewed as part of the family by Santa, Mrs. Claus, and his staff of elves. Still, Eleanor can’t help wondering what it would feel like to have a home and best friend of her own. (Scrupulously PC, Tracy avoids any use of the word “owner.”)
Samantha Bonzi stars as Eleanor, and she is sensational. Not only is she possessed of a wonderful singing voice, but she has the ability, even in a children’s show in which everyone (including herself) is big and bright and bubbly, to exhibit a sense of longing without any hint of moroseness. This is not a doll who mopes about the North Pole all day wishing she could have what she lacks; rather, she spreads joy among the elves and in the Claus household, taking part in the annual holiday activities in any way she can.
The Clauses, Santa (David Turrentine) and his wife “Cookie” (Erin Parker) are, as they ought to be, icons of goodwill and cheer. Mrs. Claus got her nickname because of the vast quantities of cookies she makes, which everyone at the North Pole (especially her husband) devours greedily as soon as they are out of the oven. Both of the Clauses love Eleanor, as do the elves who work with them.
Those elves, clad in shining, colorful clothes by Caryn Klein and wigs by Kevin Barthel, have names like Shimmer, Glimmer, Twinkle, Sparkle, and Sprinkle and are played by Lindsey Jane Bullen, Kim Green, Claire LaTourette, Cara Chumbley, Scott Gryder, and John Marshall, Jr. There is also a kind of elf efficiency expert named Clara (Emily Rohm) who is (among other things) the keeper of Santa’s List. Each of them has a unique personality that the actors explore and play with in the typically overdone style of children’s show characters with bold hand gestures and exaggerated expressions. Since they are elves, though, these affectations seem completely natural and the characters complement each other beautifully while Gray keeps them perky and moves them about on a beautiful, busy set that holds many surprises.
Rohm also plays Holly, the mother of the child who writes to Santa asking for a rag doll to be her best friend. That child, Noelle, is played with almost aching cuteness by Sydney Swanson, and the instant you see her you know what Santa will also know: this one, at last, is a perfect match for Eleanor. As Noelle and Eleanor write their separate letters to the Big Guy in a song called “Dear Santa,” the promise of the opening number (“The North Pole Is a Magical Place”) begins to come true for the patient, sweet doll. The songs here, by the way, while not likely to threaten “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” for a place on holiday playlists, are all fun and enjoyable, and David Fiorello’s music direction helps the cast to shine.
But Eleanor’s Very Merry Christmas Wish is very much Tracy’s baby, self-produced and based on her book of the same name. Sometimes a writer producing her own work can be a red flag, but Tracy does everything right here, and her play ends up as sweet as Mrs. Claus’s cookies. She has even set up colorful mats right in front for small children to watch the play and interact with the elves. Eleanor, crafted with love and warmth, more than earns its place on the Greenhouse stage. I can easily imagine this lovable hour-long show becoming a children’s holiday staple.
Eleanor’s Very Merry Christmas Wish is a DMT Entertainment production now playing at Greenhouse Theatre Center, 2257 N. Broadway, Chicago, IL, until Dec 29. The show runs approximately 65 minutes; there is no intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.