Beginning any new holiday-themed show can be a daunting affair, as many people prefer to stick to the tried-and-true traditions rather than venture into unfamiliar territory. That’s the first of several obstacles facing Solstice: Stories & Songs for the Holidays, which is making its world premiere at Theatre Three in Dallas.
The second obstacle is found right there in the title. The production does not have a plot per se, but is instead loosely held together by a variety of stories being told to a girl (Sara Grace Prejean) by her Aunt Brighid (M. Denise Lee) on the winter solstice, aka the longest night of the year.
These stories and songs have a tinge of familiarity, as popular hymns and figures such as Santa Claus make appearances. But it’s more than likely that most of the material will be foreign for many audience members, as it includes centuries-old poetry, as well as songs created just for this show by musical director Cherish Robinson and assistant musical director/actor Ian Mead Moore. Michael Federico was responsible for stitching the at-times disparate pieces together.
As might be expected, some of the segments are successful while others are less so. A story involving two wood spirits (Paul T. Taylor and Marti Etheridge) is played with such wacky glee that it can’t help but entertain. Another by local playwright Jonathan Norton, in which an older man, Stuart (Taylor again), finds a kindred soul in a Meals on Wheels worker named Paulette (Lee), is a story that almost begs to be expanded into a full-length play of its own.
There are a handful of inscrutable selections, most notably the inclusion of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Most of the cast sings Christmas hymns while the narrator (Taylor) recounts the undeniably horrific plotting of another man’s death. The combination of the two seemingly disparate elements is jarring and a tad hard to understand, as the singing and narration overlap. Also, given the general family friendliness of the rest of the show, it’s a bit strange to suddenly be presented with a story about murder in the guise of being a twist on A Christmas Carol.
What ultimately carries the show are the performances, which are uniformly great. Theatre Three regular Taylor is a delight in each of his roles, inhabiting each so deeply that you might question if it’s the same actor in each part. Similar kudos are deserved by Etheridge, whose dual roles as Wood Spirit and La Befana (an old Italian woman who delivers toys to children on Epiphany Eve) elicit laughter and joy.
Lee is the steadying force of the production, as her sheer presence brings a comfort to each segment. Prejean more than holds her own with the theater veterans, portending a bright future for the young performer. And Moore does great work both with the band and on the stage, popping up in small but crucial roles.
Director Jeffrey Schmidt's notes indicate that Solstice will likely change and grow if Theatre Three chooses to present it in future years, which is probably for the best given the unevenness of this iteration. But they’re to be commended for trying something new, and for picking just the right people to bring the production to life.