It’s hard to begrudge a crew of nattily dressed Christmas carolers the unavoidable saccharine they’re bound to generate while performing their duties, but it’s possible. Witness the Irish Rep’s semi-musical adaptations of two undead holiday texts, Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” and Clement Clark Moore’s “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” and the interspersed Yuletide songs, rewritten with ear-aching lyrics. The short, unassuming production is clearly a labor of love for director-adapter Charlotte Moore, but this is a family show overburdened with dense period arcana that will sail over the heads of most in the audience.
Which is not to say the evening is all bad. Moore’s winning cast really nails a few of the songs, especially “Sleigh Ride” (with Mitchell Parish’s words blessedly intact). “It’ll nearly be like a picture print from Currier and Ives,” trill Kerry Conte and Bonnie Fraser merrily. But ask the 5-year-old in the third row to identify a Currier and Ives print without a map and a compass, and you’ll probably get the same blank stare that she directs at the majority of the proceedings.
The evening starts with Justin Packard’s full recital of ” ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” during which the rest of the actors sit in chairs upstage of their castmate and watch. Somewhere near the beginning of this feat (round about the dancing sugarplums), it becomes clear that any warm memories of this poem have existed in the absence of its dramatic recitation. Packard does everything he can, but Moore’s cast of celebrants all look like they’re in their mid-20s, and it’s jarring to hear so many anachronistic words come out of mouths much too young to have spoken them before in anything but jest.
“A Child’s Christmas in Wales” fares a little worse, due in part to the travestying of songs like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” with new words that dovetail with Thomas’ narrative but don’t rhyme well.
The insurmountable problem, though, is that Thomas’ poetic memoir is roughly as theatrical as Kant’s “Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics.” The words are beautiful when read on the page or spoken with a Welsh brogue by Thomas himself (there’s a great audio recording of the piece), but they lose much of their weight and all their poignancy when re-enacted onstage.
Still, there’s something to be said for the utter purity of intention Moore and company bring to the show. Theatergoers old enough to recall what a tam o’ shanter is may find themselves seduced by the guileless production and ready to go along with such deliberately unscrooged theater around Christmastime.