CBS, the producers, writer Mark Saltzman and resourceful director Terry Hughes combine to present an original, if oddly tilted, TV musical comedy with a new slant on Mrs. Santa Claus. Set in 1910, mostly charming “Mrs. Santa Claus” showcases the incandescent Angela Lansbury; in fact, it wouldn’t be much of a show without her.
Hardly the plum-pudding-pushing type of North Pole first lady, Lansbury’s Mrs. Claus is instead vivacious and delightful. She’s hot for women’s equality, cold about child-labor bosses. Having been stuck at the Pole for hundreds of years, Mrs. Claus, left at home during the annual Santa-and-reindeer run, this year grabs the sleigh just before Christmas to check out a new route for Santa (Charles Durning in a subdued interp).
Landing at Manhattan’s Avenue A and calling herself Mrs. North, Mrs. Claus leaves the reindeer with stable boy Marcello (David Norona), who’s got an eye out for suffragette Sadie Lowenstein (Debra Wiseman). Sadie’s immigrant mother (Rosalind Harris) runs the boarding house where Mrs. Claus, settling in, begins working as supervisor for archvillain toymaker A.P. Tavish (Terrence Mann), whose factory mistreats the children.
Suddenly Mrs. Claus is not only undercover, she’s teaching the kids about work slowdown and how to strike, espousing women’s rights and challenging boss Tavish to improve working conditions. She and Saltzman explore engaging if stock characters such as Norona’s Marcello, who all but steals his scenes; young, spirited Irisher Nora (Lynsey Bartilson); Officer Doyle (Bryan Murray), whose uniform frightens Mrs. Lowenstein; and assorted Lower East Side stage types.
Lansbury, taking up with secondary characters, dances and sings charmingly through Jerry Herman’s tunes, some of which are not only in Herman’s style, but are reminiscent of earlier works. Generally they’re appealing and often clever, standard show songs.
Best of the lot are “Avenue A,” featuring just about everybody; “Almost Young,” a jolly anthem for the older contingent sung energetically by Lansbury; and the inevitable “We Don’t Go Together,” delivered aptly enough by Wiseman and Norona. “Suffragette March” has verve and wit, and ostensibly brings various ethnic sorts in line with one another.
Lansbury’s delivery of “He Needs Me” is pleasing enough as she considers Santa. But it’s Christmas Eve and an injured reindeer is patched up (gimmick that keeps her grounded in New York in the first place), so it’s not clear why she takes so long to hop back in the sleigh and go home. He needs her.
Plot’s cradled in fantasy, and the East Side seg is handled entertainingly by director Hughes, composer-lyricist Herman, the indomitable Lansbury and the cast. Lansbury addicts will be enchanted. Writer Saltzman’s bookend action at the North Pole is serviceable but forced, and characters such as a wasted Michael Jeter’s chief elf, Arvo, and the other elves prove arch.
Major contributor to the production is designer Hub Braden, whose whimsical North Pole decor and huge, musical comedy-style Lower East Side street scenes are impressive. Avenue A and the Marcello’s stable sequences were filmed at Universal, and solid special effects were created at Havenhurst Studios in Van Nuys, Calif. Everything else was filmed in Valencia, Calif., at Stewart Stages.
Choreographer Rob Marshall brings a practiced hand to the traditional chorus work, and it’s a delight to see sharp chorus routines back on TV. Bob Mackie designed the costumes, which are appropriately handsome, especially Mrs. Claus’ (except for an overdone frothy red Christmas Eve outfit).
The network notes that this is “the first original CBS musical in four decades,” which may be true. But it isn’t, as the net claims, Lansbury’s “television musical debut,” as any witness to Entertainment Channel’s 1982 “Sweeney Todd,” also directed by Hughes, will readily recall.
Lansbury’s Mrs. Claus only reemphasizes the actress’s versatility and treasure chest of talents. The non-secret about Mrs. Claus is out-rushing the season a bit, but a welcome gift.