By Barry Reszel
The holiday season can certainly do a number on our individual and collective psyches.
There’s a month (or more) of celebrations with excessive food and drink, often punctuated with fragility carefully wrapped—be it in colorful paper tied with a silver bow or in the requisite Christmas sweater and black slacks.
The local musical theatre scene contributes, too, featuring splendidly over-the-top, family-friendly fare at Chicagoland’s big house regionals—Oliver! at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Mary Poppins at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace, Beauty and the Beast at Paramount Theatre in Aurora and White Christmas at Theatre at the Center in Munster, IN.
But it seems the key to surviving—maybe even enjoying or appreciating this season of opulent excess—is to purposefully carve out a little auld lang syne in our lives and our world. So put away, just for today, the traditional image of Father Time giving way to Baby New Year as the yearning Scottish folk ballad evokes tears whilst ringing in the new year. Instead, embrace the auld lang syne that can be loosely translated as, for the sake of old times, and use this contemplation to create a more mindful holiday season.
There’s a perfect prop to help musical theatre aficionados do just that, ironically found in a world premiere musical.
The Land of Forgotten Toys, developed by Chicago-based non-profit company CPA Theatricals and playing at Greenhouse Theater Center in Lincoln Park, lives up to its publicist’s billing as a delightful “holiday musical for families with teens and tweens, but enough smart humor to keep adults entertained as well.”
Key to the success of all new musicals is the music itself, and the songbook in this Land is anthemic, ballad-laden and all together lovely. Music is by Dylan MarcAurele, book and lyrics by Jaclyn Enchin and Jennifer Enchin. The story of the orphaned recent high school graduate working at her nasty aunt’s Sheboygan, Wisconsin toy store is written by CPA’s Lead Producer Larry Little. Mike Ross contributes additional lyrics, and added content is from Little and James Zager.
The young lead Grace, the light that never goes out, is magnificently portrayed by future Chicagoland stage star Bre Jacobs. She’s fascinated by stars, planets and galaxies while begrudgingly working the family toy store in the hectic three days before Christmas. Amidst the bustle, Grace confides to her innocent co-worker Nikki (lovingly played by Mary-Margaret Roberts) that she’s planning to leave town after the holiday. That’s in part because of her bellicose Aunt Charlotte (wickedly played by the fabulous Liz Norton, the Jane Lynch of Chicagoland musical theatre).
The cast becomes suddenly transported to the Land of Forgotten Toys, where the bulk of the production’s action takes place. Santa is kidnapped by his evil sister Charlotta, and it becomes the mission of Grace, Nikki and some toys in need of greater self-esteem to rescue Santa and save Christmas. It’s like a G-rated James Bond-meets-Wizard of Oz Christmas special with some terrific tunes.
Jacobs features a fabulous, standout solo voice amidst a terrific vocal ensemble of young professional musical theatre actors. “Far Away from Here” and “Just Imagine” are two of her lovely showcases. Ensemble songs “If I Had a Kid Who Loved Me” and the finale, “There is Always a Light,” are destined to be audience favorites. Roberts is particularly memorable in the comedic scenes with Quinn Kelch as tall elf Schmedrick, who hilariously shines and absolutely deserves a future Christmastime casting as Buddy in Elf the Musical. Their duet, “I’ve Never Done That Before,” is darling and humorous with enough double entendre for the adults in the crowd.
Others in this standout ensemble include Randolph Johnson as a wonderfully believable Santa; Katie Reid as the lovely Queen of the Northern Sky; the forgotten toys, Brittney Brown as Karaoke, Cathy Reyes McNamara as Fun Oven Supreme, Evelyn Crane as Barbara Doll, Josh Bishop as Trivia, Lucas Crossman as Taxi Transformer, Jabari Thurman as Game Dude; and adorable Joe Scott as Elf 1 and Maya Keane as Elf 2.
Directed with heart of the season by Nicholas Reinhart and choreography/associate direction by the fabulous Dina DiCostanzo, this enchanting musical highlighting young female empowerment will certainly have a long, successful future following this year’s understatedly triumphant premiere. If some story honing is helpful to future iterations, most attendees of this terrific premiere won’t even notice. Additional talented creatives include Music Director Stephen Coakley, Orchestrator Chris Gurr, Scenic Designer Evan Frank, Sound Designer Robert Hornbostel, Lighting Designer G. Max Maxin and Costume Designer Christina Leinicke. Special kudos to Projection Designer Kevan Loney and his assistant, Tyler King; their work, along with that of Props Designer Jim Radloff, is particularly accentuated in a small-stage show.
All said, take some time amidst this season of excess to simplify with an afternoon or evening (bring a favorite young person—by chronology or simply young at heart) and journey to this delightful Land of Forgotten Toys. If for no other reason, do it for the sake of old times.
CPA Theatricals presents “The Land of Forgotten Toys” through December 29 at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N Lincoln Ave., Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.