By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
In Almost A Full Moon, the oddly joyous and insightful new holiday musical premiering at the Citadel, generations jostle together on the stage.
Wispy stray people, strangers, somehow find each other, get connected, and become families. Stories both happy and sad unspool backwards into the past in search of their own echoes. And every humble object and tiny moment — soup ladle to tree ornament, song to kiss to phone call — gathers meaning.
This is a holiday musical with its own kind of charm that knows that time acts all weird at Christmas (or maybe that’s when we notice). The past won’t stay put, and neither will the present: it’s a haunted season. The musical created by playwright Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman, with music by Hawksley Workman (especially his hit Christmas album of 20 years ago), is all about that. And it’s actually constructed that way, taking its cue from the quirky, distinctively oblique angles of Workman’s songs themselves.
Would anyone but Workman have written A House Or Maybe A Boat, where the vague urge to build something solid mingles with smell of clementines at Christmas? Or an ode to a brand of notebook (“Claire Fontaine/You seem to bring/ The best out of me…”)? The images of the Workman songbook glint off Corbeil-Coleman’s characters. They bring the particular inspirations of this off-centre material to their uncertainties and their memories as it occurs to them to wonder, sometimes in song sometimes not, if they’re in love, or what they’re meant to do in life … or whether they’ll be home for Christmas.
In a sense, the play, commissioned by the Citadel and directed by Daryl Cloran, is a story about how stories, like families and like happiness, have to be constructed, from the bits and pieces of human experience, including memory. The narrative is assembled, artfully, before our very eyes. Magic is something to be arrived at, by human agency; it takes work. It’s like theatre that way.
And in the intersection of short, telling scenes and time periods in Act I — identified without exposition in tiny fragments of dialogue and in costumes designed by Jessica Oostergo — you wonder how it will fit together. It took me a while to catch the drift, but that feels active and intriguing, like putting together a human, intergenerational puzzle.
An amusingly precocious take-charge little boy (Felix de Sousa as Phillip) insists on striking up a friendship and a sledding date with his droll and phlegmatic new neighbour (Amanda Mella Rodriguez as Tala) in the snow (First Snow of the Year). Both young newcomers are talents to watch.
Two fearful soldiers (Luc Tellier and Kaden Forsberg) from a war long gone arrive by parachute (Bullets), literally dropped by danger into friendship. In a diner on Christmas Eve, an airline stewardess (Patricia Zentilli) on the lam from “the tyranny of family” strikes up a conversation with a musical stranger (Kendrick Mitchell) escaping from his own family, and leaves him with a notebook (Claire Fontaine) containing a family recipe.
In a way Almost A Full Moon could hardly be more quintessentially Canadian. Winter’s big. There are moments in both our official languages (and others). Snow is everywhere. In Kimberly Purtell’s lighting design it falls from the sky in vertical icicles of lights. Cory Sincennes’s set design is dominated by a self-contained three-doored wall-less room that is, like Christmas, both inside and outside — with a frost-covered floor and a snow-covered tree. It’s surrounded by unmarked cardboard boxes where the past is contained, and is set down in the enveloping darkness of a big stage.
That’s Mimi’s home turf, a mysterious foreigner in Act I and the family grand-matriarch in Act II. She’s played with an amusingly un-sentimental edge by the excellent Lyne Tremblay, who has a line in epigrammatic wisdom. Love, she says in answer to a grandson’s query, is “everything that’s left after the party.”
Mimi presides over the making of “magic soup,” as per Workman’s title song Almost A Full Moon. It’s a multi-generational family tradition of making something delicious by throwing in a mismatched assortment from every left-over on hand, which is something like a cooking up family if you think about it and try to ignore the parsnips. Anyhow, improvised soup, an unusual through-line for a musical, recurs in every holiday crisis; like charades (but way less stressful), everyone can join in.
You could make a dramatic case for having the winter gathering room surrounded by a dark world; people arrive in families from vast distances in time and space. But human exits do take a while under the circumstances. Set pieces — diner, bedroom, radio station, car — mysteriously arrive and then disappear, in a way that could probably use a tune-up.
Under Cloran’s direction, though, the piece is in constant motion. And the musical numbers, accompanied by a seven-piece band (musical director and orchestrator Ryan DeSouza) don’t feel placed or delivered in a studied inert way. The songs feel spontaneous, like thinking or reacting, sometimes by characters who are actually writing them, or testing them out on an onstage audience. And Cloran’s 10-actor cast are all good, confident singers.
The audiences has the fun of see the same characters in different times at different ages, as love stories begin to emerge from the weave of memories. Corbeil-Coleman writes Sébastien, one of the two soldiers who was an aspiring actor in civilian life, in a particularly amusing way. And Tellier, who has natural comic chops, slides right into it, as the character writes a romantic letter in French to Marie-Ève (Alicia Barban) for his tongue-tied lovestruck buddy Reuben. The playwright gives the most comic opportunities to De Sousa and Peter Fernandes as the younger and older Phillip; they’re first-rate. And Mella Rodriguez and Chariz Faulmino as the younger and older Tala have their funny moments, too, and also provide a moving insight into the immigrant experience of arriving in Canada with luggage full of grief.
As in romantic comedies with their built-in array of obstacles, the prickly, tentative coupling of Clementine and Lewis takes some doing to resolve. The latter has a career (he’s a rock star); the former is adrift and afraid of commitment. Performances by Zentilli and Mitchell capture that romantic uncertainty. Workman’s lovely Wonderful and Sad drifts into the play in a skilful way, as a love-lost duet between sadder and wiser Lewis and the older Phillip: “Where have I gone? How long ago did I leave?”
The beauty of Canada’s new holiday musical is the way it wraps itself around a season that seems designed for happiness but can be weighted with sorrow. Maybe worst of all is the compelling need for it to be special, and the feeling that you’re somehow letting the whole human team down by not being festive enough.
Almost A Full Moon isn’t unaware that a sense of loss can come down the chimney at Christmas time. “No one is different, everyone’s alone,” as Workman tells us in the title song. “We’ll make enough soup to feed everyone we know; we’ll make enough to feed everyone we don’t.” But Corbeil-Coleman unwraps a sense of hopefulness too in this new musical. A family, after all, is something that can be created, from scratch if need be. Strangers can join. It’s heartwarming stick-to-your-ribs knowledge for the holidays.
[Meet the playwright in this 12thnight preview here.]
Almost A Full Moon
Written by: Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman
Music by: Hawksley Workman
Directed by: Daryl Cloran
Starring: Alicia Barban, Felix deSousa, Chariz Faulmino, Peter Fernandes, Kayden Forsberg, Kendrick Mitchell, Amanda Mella Rodriguez, Luc Tellier, Lyne Tremblay, Patricia Zentilli
Running: through Nov. 27
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com