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Review: ‘Madeline’s Christmas’ at Creative Cauldron

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The twelve little girls in two straight lines of Ludwig Bemelmans’ beloved children’s series have taken the stage this holiday season in Creative Cauldron’s Madeline’s Christmas. With book and lyrics by Jennifer Kirkeby and music by Shirley Mier, this playful musical brings to life a timeless Madeline adventure thanks to twelve cases of the flu, a local rug merchant, and an earnest belief in magic.

The company of Madeline’s Christmas. Photograph courtesy of Creative Cauldron.

Lovingly watching over the little girls was the dedicated Miss Clavel played by Shaina Kuhn. Warm, kind, and energetically devoted to those under her charge, Kuhn exuded the very best of French charm. Her lovely, rounded vibrato was a wonderful complement to the youthful and bright sounds of her students, particularly in the musical’s opening number, “Madeline,” and her comedic timing was simply delightful. Be it coming down with a nasty flu in the song “Achoo” or during something of a mouse hunt just before the New Years’ festivities, Kuhn’s use of the stage as well as the audience was infectiously funny.

Taking on the duel roles of Monsieur Brun and Harsha was the expressive Ryan Sellers. Embracing all of the fun children’s theater has to offer, Sellers’ characters permeated every second that he was on stage with fun and laughter. As the bookish Monsieur Brun, Sellers relentlessly, if not unsuccessfully, tried to relay several interesting facts about the Eiffel Tower, but it was the mysterious rug merchant and magician, Harsha, who ended up being one of the story’s greatest teachers. Armed with a magic ring and a magic word, Harsha helped the girls and their dream of getting home for Christmas fly. With a radiating enthusiasm and goofy charm, Sellers embodied the teacher in both of these men and added his playful tenor to the merry chorus, particularly in the colorful “Abracadabra Reprise.”

Another watchful eye over the girls was the matronly, albeit a little scatter brained, Mrs. Murphy played by Laura Connors Hull. Her brief moments on the stage were spirited and larger than life, not to mention her skills with a broom are to be commended. Through Connors Hull’s performance you could see just how very loved and cared for these twelve little girls were when away at school. Even when (hilariously) coming down with the flu herself in the song, “Achoo” Mrs. Murphy was rushing around trying to take care of the girls before herself.

The spunky and self-assured Madeline was played by the shining Gabriella Simmons-Robles. Earnest and beaming from start to finish, Simmons-Robles captured the reckless optimistic and confidence for which Madeline is famous. In “Abracadabra,” a duet with Harsha, Simmons-Robles particularly tapped into the brave and curious heart of Madeline. Her portrayal was as endearing as it was precious, and her enthusiasm for the responsibly of her title role I can only hope to see in others in productions in the years to come.

Not to be forgotten were Madeline’s fellow classmates as well as the mysterious magicians assistants and puppeteers: Arianna Vargas, Abigail Boatwright, Libby Brooke, Piper Boatwright, Jordan McCullough, Fiona Scheer, Alyson Kentner-Leary, Samantha Grooms, Avery Manzel, Rachel Grooms, Miri Brooke, Bianka Lougheed, Courtney Weldon, Ava Feldstein, Sophia Rader, Sicily Smith, Owen Thiebert, and Caden Mitchel. Each of them brought endless energy and excitement to their roles on stage. It was the song, “We’re Flying” featuring Madeline, the girls, and all of the puppeteers that really allowed these budding young actors and actresses to soar. Balancing puppetry and a whole lot of movement, they brought the audience along on a lovely journey through the night sky, all from the comfort of our seats. The joy on their faces from curtain all the way through bows reminded us all what the love of theater can do and just how important the arts are in the lives of the young. Bravo, girls and boys!

The success of this magical production would not have been possible without a truly committed crew under Director, Matt Conner. Charmingly creative and purposeful with every blocking choice and direction, Conner unlocked the childlike wonder and exploration at the heart of Madeline’s Christmas. From the scenic/costume/puppet design by Margie Jervis and the scenic carpentry by Teddy Wiant, to the lighting design by John Sami, the bright, colorful, simple, and elementary design choices stayed true to the aesthetic of the original book series. Equally as creative was the choreography by Stephen Gregory Smith. Whether a chilly school field trip to the zoo or a carpet ride across the Parisian sky on Christmas Eve, the clever use of the small stage was enchanting. Rounding out the dedicated group behind the scenes was Stage Manager Dwight Townsend-Gray; Assistant Stage Manager, Morgan Beltson; and Properties Manager, Chris Riherd. No matter the role off stage, is clear that this Creative Cauldron community is built on collaboration and their successes are thanks to everyone pitching in.

Recommended for all ages but in particular the young or the young at heart, Madeline’s Christmas takes you on a holiday adventure of friendship, kindness, make-believe, and good fun. At Christmas, anything is possible, if you know the magic word.

Running Time: 60 minutes with no intermission.

Madeline’s Christmas is playing through December 23rd at Creative Cauldron – 410 S Maple Avenue, Falls Church, VA. For tickets, call (703) 436-9948, or purchase them online.

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