By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Sweet as a bushel of sugar cookies, light as a snowflake, 'Twas the Night before Christmas is safe family fare on the big stage at Dallas Children's Theater. The play-with-music pretends to tell the back story of how 19th century American journalist Clement C. Moore came up with that poem, the one about the jolly old elf and his eight tiny reindeer.
Moore was working under deadline pressure, or so says the show. Assigned to write a special Christmas feature for the newspaper favored by President James Monroe, Moore (played by Brad Jackson, who brings much-needed clowning to several otherwise slow-as-Christmas scenes) stays up to the wee hours and begins seeing visions of sugarplum fairies, who serve as his Muses. In DCT's production, with a large cast directed by DCT artistic director Robyn Flatt, the fairies are eight mischievous ballerinas in sparkly makeup, flitting around like flirty sprites.
The fairies are joined by a line of dancing toys and then by Saint Nicholas himself (Ryan Page), shimmying down the chimney in his red velvet finery. (Scenery and props by H. Bart McGeehon are lavishly rendered, with the Moores' home spanning two levels, with a wide staircase, a spinning Christmas tree and lots of windows. Costumes by Lyle Huchton pile on rich fabrics, candy colors and fanciful details, like the spangled tiaras on the fairies.)
During his night of writing — yes, there are sequences of Brad Jackson sitting on a stool, pretending to write with a feather as time tick-tocks by — Moore makes some crucial edits. "'Twas the night prior to Christmas," he scratches onto parchment with his quill, "and the family was in the house and nowhere a mouse was heard." Just doesn't have the same catchy cadence as the final version, right?
Every scene in this show is arranged like a pretty Christmas card picture. And if some of the dialogue by playwright-lyricist Jennifer Kirkeby is as flat as cardboard, well, there's always a peppy song (composed by Shirley Mier) coming up. And what a fine bunch of carolers DCT has gathered. Playing Mrs. Moore is newcomer Monique Abry, blessed with ingenue beauty and a strong soprano trill. The Moore offspring — Finley Jennings, Emma Colwell, Drew Favors and Kuran Patel (alternating with others) — are all strong singers, too. As are choristers Wendy Welch, Deborah Brown, Sheran Goodspeed Keyton, Johnny Lee and, as a smiling toy soldier, assistant director K. Doug Miller.
Poet Moore's verse actually was written for his own children. He read it to them on Christmas Eve, 1822. Titled "A Visit from St. Nicholas," it was published anonymously the following year. Moore wasn't named as the author until decades later when the work was included in an anthology. He lived in the wrong century to benefit from the squillion and one adaptations for film and TV. After all, he was the first to give Santa's reindeer their names: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. (We have never heard enough about Vixen, who seems ripe for a saucy bio-pic of her own, don't you think?)
'Twas the Night before Christmas runs until three nights before Christmas, with plenty of matinees geared toward the target audience and to grandparents who no longer drive at night.