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Pioneer Theatre transports us to Connecticut, at Christmas

Christmas in Connecticut travels from its Connecticut premiere to its regional premiere, at Pioneer Theatre.

Christmas in Aspen, Provincetown or Fort Lauderdale: tremendous. Christmas in Barbados: tremendouser. Christmas in Utah: there’s snow.

Christmas in Connecticut,  the yuletide production at Pioneer Theatre Company, whisks us away to an inviting snowy homestead, and with the robust talent of the 15-member ensemble, it’s a snow globe with gently drifting snowflakes.

There is a list of 20 or so memorable end-of-year movies for the masses yearning for warm, traditional holiday fuzzies. Masterful director Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life  joyfully reminds us that love of friends makes life wonderful—and heavenly angels get their wings. And we quote lines from fave characters: Kevin, “Buzz, your girlfriend. Woof!” and Natalie Wood, “I believe, I believe. It’s silly, but I believe,” and Ralphie, “Only I didn’t say, ‘fudge.’ I said the word, the big one, the queen mother of dirty words, the ‘f-dash-dash-dash’ word!”

On that list somewhere is the can’t-seem-to-recall Christmas in Connecticut, in which Barbara Stanwyck is an unmarried New York City magazine columnist posing as a skilled farm wife and mother. Beyond its few ardent fans, the movie largely hangs on the list, with cat claws, because “Christmas”  is in the title.

Thankfully forgotten is a 1992 TV version with Dyan Cannon, Kris Kristofferson, and Richard Roundtree, directed by — yes, it’s true — Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The musical adaptation premiered at Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, where there’s a legacy of stellar musicals. New musicals are just one thing the foremost regional theater does very well. Must successfully Annie and Man of La Mancha traveled to the east, to Broadway.

Christmas in Connecticut  moved west, aiming for the success of PTC’s excellent A Christmas Story last year. Elf  and Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley were also standouts of other recent December productions.

This production appears to be the only Christmas in Connecticut this season of any theater company, including in Connecticut. Understandably. The clunky book, barely passable music, and stale-as-fruitcake humor—including stale, fruity quips about fruitcake—is a plea for family, holiday-cherishing audiences.

One thing PTC does very well, along with its other powerful attributes, is casting. The vast majority of actors are seasoned professionals with Broadway credits and were featured in lead roles at similar highly respected regional theaters. And we roundly applaud this show’s performers.

Heading the cast is Alyse Alan Louis as the Martha Stewart-masquerading writer. She was Drama Desk-nominated in The Public’s Soft Power and had White Way performances in Amélie, Seth Rudetsky’s Disaster! and Mamma Mia! ; most recently in the viciously funny White Girl in Danger,  Michael R. Jackson’s viciously funny follow-up to the viciously funny A Strange Loop. On stage almost the entire Christmas in Connecticut, Louis has commanding confidence and a belt that roasts chestnuts.

Her bickering but quickly-becoming love interest is Eric William Morris as the hunky countryman. He’s a sturdy leading man, known for Broadway’s Mamma Mia! and as SQUIP in Be More Chill. Morris doesn’t overly rely on his chiseled features and endears himself with playful charisma and exhilarating vocals.

Among the most undeniable strong actors are the returning-home serviceman, played by Christian Magby, and comedic editorial assistant, Tiffany Denise Hobbs, who are with those deeply committed to making their cookie-cutter role vivid and the budding of their relationship believable. Jamen Nanthakumar and RJ Vaillancourt admirably play hidden-away, now-embraced gay lovers written into this storyline, alongside the other too-quick pairings. Linda Mugleston entertainingly patterns Mary Wickes from White Christmas. Gerry McIntyre is a great actor in a menial role.

With only bare-bones strokes of the 80-year-old original, a suggested improvement is a stronger fish-out-of-water storyline—perhaps a blasé, quasi-sophisticate Paris Hilton in the lead role (Paris in Connecticut, not in a Hilton, at Christmas, maybe?). Since the original characters are nearly completely AWOL. A re-thinking of the songs is also needed; few advance the plot while others merely illustrate the emotion of the moment. The title becomes a song, natch. There’s the absence of a genuine Christmas carol.

“Catch the Ornament” is the most contrived of the worst novelty-song misfires to end Act One, and “May You Inherit” is an out-of-nowhere manufactured goodwill plea akin to the cloying “Let There Be Peace on Earth” closing the show.

Music Director Helen Gregory works valiantly to make the songs sound important, and the seven musicians under her direction shine. Credit Director Shelley Butler’s for looking beyond the cardboard characterizations to elicit bright performances.

This simple show can be simply enjoyed, lowering expectations of (simple) sentimentalists. And there is snow. A snow globe, a brief interlude and returned to a shelf.

Yet, kudos for something new.

You’ll forgive me if I’m overly harsh. I’m from California, where snow stays in the mountains where it’s supposed to, and I view the ersatz religiosity of the holiday with disinclination.

Blair is a Californian who views Dec. 25 with disinclination. And please note, Salt Lake City has its charms but I totally miss living in Santa Monica, Calif. and New Canaan, Conn., my other primary residences.

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