In a season filled with holiday-infused stories, Creative Cauldron’s The Christmas Angel is an original, heartwarming take on a lesser-known story. It’s the second year of this Bold New Works production, directed by Creative Cauldron resident creative team Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith (with original music by Conner and book and lyrics by Smith). The show continues to provide comfort that establishes it as a new staple of DC-area holiday fare.
Based on a 1910 novel by Abbie Farwell Brown, the story follows Angelina Terry (Kara-Tameika Watkins), who lives alone. Her parents are dead, she’s estranged from her sister Thomasina (Lenny Mendez), and her servant Horton (Ricky Drummond) is trying his best to enliven spirits, as a narrator and leader of carolers. On Christmas Eve, Angelina throws her old Christmas toy gifts to the street as a test to the outside world. As she proclaims that there’s no hope in having Christmas spirit, the Christmas Angel (Chelsea Majors) takes Angelina on a journey to learn the happier fates of the toys she tossed aside. Ultimately, she finds hope, joy, and generosity.
It’s a beautiful adaptation that adds context for Angelina’s background and gives it full life. Conner and Smith’s direction takes advantage of the intimate space, allowing for a well-paced and engaging production. This year’s production features some script changes, notably making Angelina’s sibling a sister, Thomasina, whose offense is that she gives all of her money to charities and asks Angelina for more money. This contrasts with the brother Tom from the novel and last year’s production, who was estranged from Angelina for his gambling problems.
This rewrite positions Thomasina as having more goodness and charity in her heart than Angelina, and puts the emphasis on a close sister relationship. It creates delightful flashbacks to when the sisters were younger, where Mendez is all levity and sweetness as she gives gifts to her sister and tries to get her into the Christmas spirit. However, the level of hard feelings between the sisters in the present, leading up to the finale where Thomasina returns, is a little less tense because the problem is about differences in how the sisters view giving to the less fortunate: a trope that is in so many Christmas stories already.
It is interesting that Angelina says she doesn’t like Christmas because of the commercialism of it, yet doesn’t give back to others because she just doesn’t see the point. It comes from a place of hopelessness and loneliness, not being a villainous miser for no reason. “She gives everything of herself until there’s nothing left,” Angelina laments about her sister.
As Angelina, Kara-Tameika Watkins exudes independence and control; she’s set in her ways. Her expressions of “Twiddlesticks and rubbish!” never come across as cartoonish; they’re matter-of-fact. The line between embracing memories of her happier past where she shows capacity for whimsy, and returning to her present cold self, is well-juxtaposed. It’s a refreshing take on why someone might not like the holiday season. Her transformation into finding more hope as the Christmas Angel shows her more of the toys’ stories is wonderful. I loved the finale moment where Horton gives lit candles to Angelina, and Angelina ensures that each flame is controlled just enough before handing them off tenderly to the children.
Ricky Drummond as Horton and Chelsea Majors as The Christmas Angel are the heart of the story. Drummond is a delight, as he accompanies the whole cast on guitar and serves as the bridge between the show and the audience. As he counts the kids in and encourages audience interaction, he has off-the-cuff improvisational energy and warmth. His delivery of rhymed narrated moments felt so natural that it took some time to realize they were rhymed.
Majors has a beautiful lilting soprano, with good vibrato and a softness appropriate to her character’s innate goodness and trust that Angelina will rediscover hope. This is a beautiful contrast to Watkins’ full-voiced mezzo in their duet. She also brings a mischievous energy; she’s not all goody-two-shoes. Majors doubles as Mary, the young orphan who steals the doll Miranda from the street but eventually is adopted by Angelina as Angelina’s first true act of generosity.
This show also features Creative Cauldron’s Musical Theatre Training Ensemble. As the Toys, Carmen Ortiz (The Ark), Sophia Misciagno (Miranda, Angelina’s doll), Marianne Meade (Jack, the jack-in-the-box), and Sophie Silva (The Flanton Dog) provide lessons and comic relief. Ortiz stands out for raising the stakes while performing opposite the adult actors; her dramatic, doomed “I’m next!” when she realizes that Angelina’s about to throw her out is hysterical, and her sense of protection for the animal passengers on her ark is sweet. Silva’s indignant portrayal of a stuffed dog that gets run over by a car, Meade’s physical manifestation of being wound up as the jack-in-the-box, and Misciagno’s quiet determination that she looks great despite others saying she was an ugly reject make each toy memorable.
The ensemble includes Margaret Kruckenberg, Emerson Thiebert, Alison Harmon, Andrea Banuelos Valenzuela, and Elizabeth Russin. Their pre-show moment, where they play checkers and cat’s cradle as their usual selves, invites audiences into the natural world of the show and adds a sense of nostalgia as music director Lucia LaNave plays reflective arrangements of Christmas songs. Speaking of the music, the children’s natural voices truly shine. LaNave coordinates an ensemble that plays bells and tambourine with good rhythm.
The set design, costumes, and props, designed by Margie Jervis, complement the environment, with classic red, green, and black coats and hats with lace and flowers for the children’s ensemble, and traditional Dickensian-like outfits for the adults. The Christmas Angel and the toys’ costumes are highlights, as they bring each character to detailed life (including the Christmas Angel’s lacy wings). The wood door frames and fireplace, with the toy box at center stage, create a home in a black box space.
The lighting and projections, designed by Jared Jacknow with consultation from Lynn Joslin and original designer James Morrison, add to the holiday spirit. The stage is lit with light oranges and pinks for the moments of warmth, and blues in other moments. Projections of snow, balls of light, and shimmering sparkles signifying the beginning of each toy’s ending add to the magic.
Creative Cauldron is traditionally a wonderful place to be around this time of year as their holiday cabarets are in full swing. Don’t miss out on this musical to get a fuller taste of their intimate space. If you’re looking for a show that’ll give you a little more hope and belief in humanity, let The Christmas Angel light up your life.
Running Time: Approximately 75 minutes, with no intermission.
The Christmas Angel plays through December 18, 2022 — Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m, Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. — at Creative Cauldron, 410 South Maple Avenue, Falls Church, VA. Purchase tickets (Tier 1, $40; Tier 2, $30; students, $20) online. The show will be live-streamed on December 17 at 7:30 p.m. Purchase tickets for the live stream here.
The program for The Christmas Angel is online here.
COVID Safety: Audiences are required to wear masks for this performance. See Creative Cauldron’s complete COVID-19 Theater Protocols.
The Christmas Angel
A Bold New Works Musical
Book and lyrics by Stephen Gregory Smith
Music by Matt Conner
Adapted from The Christmas Angel by Abbie Farwell Brown
Directed by Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith
Scenic and Costume Designer: Margie Jervis
Stage Manager and Sound Design: Nicholas Goodman
Music Director: Lucia LaNave
Lighting Designer: Jared Jacknow
Lighting and Projections Consultants: James Morrison and Lynn Joslin
Angelina Terry: Kara-Tameika Watkins
Thomasina Terry: Lenny Mendez
Horton: Ricky Drummond
The Christmas Angel: Chelsea Majors
The Toy Ensemble: Carmen Ortiz as the Ark; Sophia Misciagno as Miranda; Marianne Meade as Jack; and Sophie Silva as the Flanton Dog
The ensemble: Margaret Kruckenberg, Emerson Thiebert, Alison Harmon, Andrea Banuelos Valenzuela, and Elizabeth Russin