From the moment I entered the Independence Studio on 3 (3rd floor of the Walnut Street Theatre), the holiday spirit was evident. Hot cider was available for the audience to savor, and once inside the small theatre, I felt like I was in a cozy home celebrating Christmas. A warm inviting room, decorated for Christmas with garlands and stockings, is the setting for Walnut Street Theatre’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales, a musical based on the poem by Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas. The adaptation and original songs were by Charlotte Moore, with musical arrangements by Mark Hartman. Aaron Cromie is the stage director, and Matthew Mastronardi, the music and vocal director, of this pleasant and comforting, and joyful production.
The set and lighting design by Scott Groh and Sasha Anistratova, respectively, are realistic and very effective. The room includes an upright piano, as well as an old fashioned stove, tables, chairs, working chandelier, Christmas tree with lights, and windows that glow appropriately. There is also a functioning door that opens. During some of the scenes we see the snow falling outside the windows, which helps invoke the holidays even though most of us are still wearing light jackets in a sunny Philadelphia! There are other relevant details that add to the realism, such as a crèche above the door, a portrait of a young boy on the wall, hats and scarfs by the door, mugs, and real liquid poured from the kettle, and smoke escaping from the stove.
A Child’s Christmas in Wales is billed as a musical, but it is more like an evening at a friend’s or relative’s home. Popular and traditional Christmas songs, as well as lesser-known songs, are interwoven with Dylan Thomas’ nostalgic and funny poem about the holidays. Some of these songs are sung in Welsh. But it is not simply a recitation of a poem, but storytelling by each of the characters of various moments of Christmases past. Welsh culture is transmitted through the songs and the style of the musical performance, in the food served for Christmas breakfast, laverbread and cockles; and enhanced by some of the jokes and references.
Most impressive are the ensemble members of this production, Aaron Cromie, Scott Greer, Maggie Lakes, Matthew Mastronardi, and Amanda Jill Robinson, who not only sing in parts (harmonies) but also play various musical instruments. Each one plays at least two instruments in addition to singing, acting and speaking their part relative to the poem. The instruments are strategically and unobtrusively placed in the room and include: autoharp, piano, guitar, banjos, harmonica, mandolin, cello, violin, flute, yukelele, melodica, handbells, tambourine, triangle, and sleigh bells. The singing was carefully and enthusiastically executed. Everything was sung in tune, audible, and with clear diction, but in a folk style that seemed natural and very appropriate for the occasion— friends and family reminiscing about and experiencing the winter holiday.
Before the actual show commenced, recorded instrumental carols were played as the audience filed in and found their seats. The first song performed in the musical itself was “Deck the Halls,” a popular carol, accompanied by violin, cello, flute, mandolin and guitar. Other songs performed during the evening were: “Take My Hand,” “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” “Ring Out the Bells,” “Ar Hyd y Nos” (“All Through the Night”), “Open Your Eyes,” “Calon Lân” and many more. Among these, “I Don’t Want a Lot for Christmas,” and “Aunts and Uncles” are songs with lyrics from Dylan Thomas’ poetry.
My favorite renditions of the evening were “Silent Night” and “A Soaling.” “Silent Night” is sung in Welsh accompanied by the autoharp. Candles are lit and everyone else on stage (except the instrumentalist) holds a candle while they sing and the lights are dimmed. Snow falls outside the windows as I experienced the peace of the season.
“A Soaling” also known as “A Soulcake,” and “Hey Ho Nobody Home,” is a popular round that I sang as a child but with different words. This tune, although well known in the United States, comes originally from Britain and was published in 1893. The folk theme has been adapted with diverse lyrics and arrangements. For this production it was sung in round, accompanied by 2 guitars, banjo, mandolin and cello. The cello was not played with its bow in this number, though. It was plucked with the fingers, which was quite fitting for the folk style of the piece. It is a simple and catchy melody. However, when all of the voices are added, singing at different moments, exiting and entering, it is more musically complex, animated and exciting. Add the instruments played by the same singers, and it is sonically entertaining and very skillful on the part of the musicians.
The evening in a Welsh home of times past, ended with “ We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” The audience was invited to join in and everyone sang with gusto. A Child’s Christmas in Wales is a sweet and uplifting musical that does more than just depict or portray Dylan Thomas’ nostalgia. It brings the spirit of the holiday onto the stage for all to share. Definitely add this show to your holiday to-do list!
Running Time: 70 minutes, with no intermission.
A Child’s Christmas in Wales plays through December 23, 2016 at Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3—825 Walnut Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 574-3550 or (800)-982-2787, or purchase them online.