The difference between a Hallmark holiday movie and the Hideout Theatre's improvised musical version of a Hallmark holiday movie? Surprises. Over the last 12 years, Hallmark has built a cottage industry around its incredibly popular Christmas flicks, running them 24/7 from October to January and adding 40 new movies to its Santa-sized catalog this year alone. You don't get to that level of production without figuring out just what your audience wants and giving it to them in a way that satisfies the same way every time – y'know, like a Big Mac. When Hallmark does a Christmas story, you know exactly what'll happen from jump street. There will be a single person, likely from a big city and likely too caught up in the demands of a career to think about love. There will be a small town where big-city workaholic and their perfect match will meet but won't like each other. There will be friction. There will be snow. Over some Christmas activity – e.g., ice-skating, cookie baking, tree trimming – the two will reconcile. There will be a kiss annnnd ... end credits roll. No surprises.
The jolly band of elves behind The Hallmark Holiday Musical at the Hideout Theatre have clearly studied the formula for these films, as you can tell just from Kaci Beeler's exquisitely painted backdrop of a snowy rural scene. Its stone bridge over a frozen creek and the cozy cottage just beyond boast that idyllic look that's literally picture-perfect for a cable movie of idealized romance. But the improvisers also build it into the bones of their stage version. Big-city, career-focused single: check. Small town: check. Friction between the singles destined for each other: check. Christmas activity: check. Kiss: check.
At least, all of that was present in the performance I saw on Dec. 14. And all of it fit into a story as smoothly as in a real Hallmark movie – maybe more smoothly. But the cast began weaving in the unexpected right away. Instead of Hallmark's obligatory single white female as the romantic lead, we got a single brown male; Estevan J. Chuy Zarate stepped right up to shoulder the burdens of the beleaguered labor/delivery nurse (the occupation suggested by the audience) who always had to cover the holiday shifts in the Chicago hospital maternity ward where he worked. Until, that is, he was ordered to go to Mistletoe, Del., by the hospital's greedhead owner – a deliciously avaricious Courtney Hopkin, slinging cigarette smoke everywhere, even around the newborns – to staff a new maternity wing there (no hospital, just a wing). One problem: the town's long tradition of midwifery, which meant having a medical professional move in would rub locals the wrong way.
After landing in Mistletoe, nurse Paul ran into a few prospective matches, but ultimately, the one with whom he had the most friction was – surprise! – Tom the Baker (Frank Sánchez, making a funny running bit of giving people croissants that he'd stuffed in his pants pocket). Without hesitation, the full cast followed through on the same-sex romance idea, with all the townspeople knowing about Tom's sexual identity and comforting him in his loneliness. (Sánchez built on this with a sweet improvised ballad, "Why Am I Alone?") Paul and Tom almost made their love connection while trimming the Christmas tree at the Red Roof Inn (the desk clerk – Hopkin again – was a stellar supporting character), but it took the holiday tradition of making gingerbread houses (another audience suggestion) to get them to the kiss, which was accompanied by an endearing improvised duet by Zarate and Sánchez in which one sang about about building a house and the other about building a home.
Before it all ended, though, we learned that Tom's mom – Mistletoe's preeminent midwife and owner of its one coffee shop (Sarah Doering, keepin' it maternal) – had hooked up with the Red Roof Inn desk clerk, and they got their kiss, too. That romance sprang from one of those moments when an offhand remark by one improviser led to a classic "yes, and" from another improviser, adding something to the narrative that was unexpected yet absolutely delightful and satisfying. Thanks to this cast, always in the moment, there were many such instances, each popping up like a gift from Santa's bag. And with the guidance of directors Monica Martinez Maher and Rachel Creason, The Hallmark Holiday Musical was able to remain faithful to the movie formula and, at the same time, subvert it. Now that's a Christmas miracle.
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