By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
There are few theater types in town more aggressive than Steven Jones, founding producer of Irving's Lyric Stage. He doles out both promotion of his company and criticism of the perceived deficiencies of other troupes (not to mention the city's stage punditry) with plainspoken zeal. It can become abrasive if, once he's said what's on his mind, he doesn't relax and let creep in a bit of that clean-cut gallantry--the stuff he turns on for the faithful, often older regulars whose hands he shakes and whose cheeks he kisses as they depart the Irving Arts Center.
Indeed, the combination of Jones' scorched-earth salesmanship and toothy, mischievous grin is one of the more unusual weapons for attention in a North Central Texas scene crowded with professional and community theaters--a distinction that he is quick to draw among the area's purveyors of musicals. You can't really dispute Lyric Stage's pre-eminence as our producer of world, regional, and state premieres. Nor can you impugn its mission to create a quasi-repertory company for Equity musical stars who would otherwise only enjoy the odd contract stint at Theatre Three or supporting role in one of Richard Hamburger's tinkerings with a classic at Dallas Theater Center.
In the holiday spirit of extending myself beyond prejudices against the kind of material in which Jones and Lyric specialize, I must say that I appreciated and sometimes enjoyed their world premiere of A Christmas to Remember, even as I thought that Jay Dias' book and Cheryl Denson's direction shortchanged the gripping literary biography at the show's core, afflicting it with little curlicues of mannerism and grandiloquent feeling chipped from the weathered edifice of The Musical. You can't get fans to pause and kneel unless fragments from this artifact are present. I blame Lyric mainstay Denson for condescending to expectation, because in bolder hands, the dark side of human nature and the miracle of its redemption would be translated as gleaming as it truly is, while so many other December productions wallow in chimney soot.
A Christmas to Remember documents the now little-studied life of short-story master O. Henry, known to family, friends, and an Ohio penitentiary as William Sidney Porter. He spent part of the late 19th century as a lowly bank clerk in Austin, pouring all his financial resources and Promethean energy into a small sinkhole of a satirical newspaper called The Rolling Stone. Porter also had a tubercular wife and a daughter who seemed to love him dearly, to the point of living in near privation and tolerating his frequent absences and heavy drinking. After he left the bank to become a reporter in Houston, his former employers discovered his unbalanced books and had him prosecuted. Porter abandoned his family to live in Honduras, but returned shortly before the turn of the century to see his dying wife. He was arrested and spent more than three years in the federal pen; he started publishing magazine stories while still a prisoner and was already nationally famous as O. Henry when freed.
The creators of Lyric Stage's A Christmas to Remember use O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi to frame these events; the tale was inspired by his sick spouse and dedicated to their child. This show concerns itself with the relationship between Porter (Kevin Varner) and his daughter Margaret (Lana Whittington as the child, Carrie Hickman as the teenager). She was sheltered from both his fugitive criminal status and his prison stint, first by wife Emma (Jennifer Freeman), and later by grandmother Mrs. Roche (Pam Peadon, whose villainous eyebrows and scheming leer sometimes steer us to giggles), who early on labeled and then discarded Porter as a drunk and a dreamer.
A Christmas to Remember cheerleads exuberantly for Porter as a loving husband and father (he did, in fact, maintain constant and concerned correspondence with Margaret while imprisoned). Kevin Varner as Porter is a wondrously wounded stage presence, a man who flails through the bars of a dreamy artistic temperament, reaching out to the women in his life but unable to comfort them, even before a real jail cell comes between them. The sense of a man always wanting to love more fully and more demonstratively than circumstances permit permeates this show thanks to Varner, and he gives it a soulful core that future producers will be lucky to repeat but probably will not best.
Jennifer Freeman as patient partner Emma and Carrie Hickman as Margaret are wise to orbit his boyish suffering delicately and offer their exquisite voices in strokes of consolation from the sidelines. With set designer Wade Giampa's spidery outlines of city structures shot through by Susan White's background of alternating blue and red, the audience is anchored in the family's travails even as its members are separated.
Director Denson intrudes when she steers Pam Peadon into near-evil manipulation to keep father and daughter apart, Freeman to die onstage with one hand flopping down the side of her bed, or Lana Whittington to weep as she's being ripped from Varner's arms before he is arrested. While not musical moments themselves, of course, they are clumsy attempts at a grand moment without song that will match the grandeur of the voices and the orchestra. They are, in short, choices of characterization dictated by trying to keep up with the score, rather than a writer and director allowing the performers to express the will of the composers organically. This is one distinction that will perhaps express my uneasiness with so many musicals; they are revues wearing garish plot like drag, less interested in stories about people than string-swelling moments of crisis and ecstasy that are little more than masturbatory fodder for actors and fans.