Taproot's world premiere production of "Le Club Noel" by Candace Vance with Music and Lyrics by Sam Vance is set in an intimate nightclub in Paris in 1933. It begins on Armistice Day and the dangerous world surrounding the club is clearly perched on the precipice of the next "Great War". A tradition in the Purple Door Club is to transform itself into Le Club Noel for Christmas, and that explains the singalong carols and seasonal festivity in the second act. While it is always an interesting premise to observe the holiday in a new context, whether historical or social, this show simply doesn't work. While Director Karen Lund does her best with an experienced and talented cast, only a couple of scenes really work, and the whole of the show feels contrived, manipulative, inauthentic and shallow at precisely those points where it should be most passionate.
Our host, Chantrice Simon (Candace Vance) is the center of life in this club and her family consists of her young son, Lionel (Max Vance, and alternately Sage Mazurek) her fellow musicians Ancil (a charming and energetic Edd Key) Bellamy (Mark Tyler Miller) and the club's owner Valerie (the always convincing Faith Russell) It is she who hires an unknown itinerant, Barry (Sam Vance) to replace the cook. In addition to the regular customer Tamara de Lempicka (Nikki Visel) the club is frequented by a French officer, Commandant Durant (Jay Cross) and a heartless General Reule Richard (Ryan Childers). They bring to the club not only the contemporary disruption and danger of the streets outside, but also complex personal histories that intersect on past battlefields and in the paternity of the young boy.
The problems in this show, which are primarily in the writing, begin with the failure of the first act to create this as a believable place in another country at another time. In order for us to accept that we have come to this club because it will reveal to us the world around it, we must first believe that this club in some way contains all of that world around it. The artificiality, the artifice, of the performances made it impossible for me to forget that I was sitting in an audience watching actors on stage. Adding to that problem was the fact that the action on the outside, on the streets surrounding the club, always felt like sound effects and reportage, rather than real danger. Most fatally, and this was true for most of the show, too much of the drama was given to us as explication between characters rather than as immediate dramatic conflict. Far too much of this play was drama that we heard about, rather than drama we saw.
That was especially apparent in the second act, when one important scene broke out of that constriction and allowed us to believe, briefly, that these people were showing us the story of who they were to each other, how their lives intersected, and why it should matter to us in an emotional rather than an intellectual way. That scene was also a rather bittersweet indication of what I think the creators wanted this show to be, but it was entirely too late. While the nature of performance inside performance (think "Cabaret") can certainly theatricalize and humanize even the most political of situations, the performance has to be generated by the situation, not laid on top of it. That lack of organic composition really hurt the "Christmas" performance in the second act, when it was impossible not to recognize that this was a conscious writing decision to add all the "surefire" holiday carols to manipulate us into a sentimental response to characters who hadn't really earned our empathy.
Adding to that lack of verisimillitude was an inconsistency in acting style that never really let us be comfortable with the "fact" of the dramatic action. With the exception of Faith Russell as the club owner and Sam Vance as the cook with a history, Barry, I was rarely able to forget that these people were performing, acting with a capital Ack.
This is identified as a "play with music" rather than a musical, and as such the songs by Sam Vance are quite well done and, at times, even moving. A lovely lullaby sing by Chantrice was, for me, the most effective musical moment in the show. There were times when the composition felt a little too contemporary and not period enough, and again we were taken out of the time and place of the show. Russell was able to get the whole audience engaged in the singalong carols, but again, I sure didn't feel like I was anywhere but Greenwood in 2013.
Holiday shows are a tricky thing to do, especially to create something that feels genuine and original. "Le Club Noel" may very well be exactly what an audience wants, if they want something sentimental, familiar, unchallenging and decorative. For me, this show committed the worst offenses in a Christmas production; it felt superficial, unoriginal, never fully realized and too commercially motivated. Sorry.