The Arts Club’s The Day Before Christmas would be just as at home on Lifetime or W Network, as it is on the BMO Theatre stage.
Turn on either of the two specialty television channels any time of day right now and you’ll see titles like Family Christmas, The Flight Before Christmas, and A Christmas Wedding Date. The channel listings are so crowded with these shows you could watch at least one a day this month.
While their proliferation on cable television must indicate there is an appetite for these types of Christmas stories, they all use a very similar formula. Family conflict, misunderstandings and ultimately a feel-good resolution are their mainstays. In the new comedy from playwrights Stacey Kaser and Alison Kelly, The Day Before Christmas uses that exact same holiday recipe.
Alex is a bit of a perfectionist. Looking to create lasting memories for her children she orchestrates the family Christmas to an inch of its life. Problem is, things are changing quickly in the Lee household. This year daughter Brodie is off to a wedding and her son Max wants to spend it with his new girlfriend. Even her loyal brother and his two children decide on Disneyland this year instead of the traditional clan gathering. Add in an old flame who suddenly makes an appearance, and you have the blueprint for yet another Christmas movie-of-the-week.
In our recent interview with the playwrights, they both talked of how during early development the reaction to the script was one of universal recognition. While that may remain true for some, the rest will want a whole lot more.
Don’t confuse wanting more for show length though, as The Day Before Christmas clocks in at a full two hours, excluding intermission. A big part of its run time is taken up by a first act that takes way too long to unwrap the characters and the premise. Act two fares a little better as things begin to spiral, but with few surprises it is a little like unwrapping a football. You already know what’s inside.
Despite its movie-of-the-week premise, there are some wonderful performances here. The chemistry between Jennifer Clement and Andrew Wheeler as husband and wife is ultimately believable and natural. As the two children, Daren Dychengco and Julie Leung are a breath of fresh air.
(On a side note, an intermission conversation turned to the ethnicity of the two young actors. “Why,” I was asked, “were the two of apparent Asian descent when their parents were clearly Caucasian?” Since their ethnicity had nothing to do with story, I said it did not require an explanation. I also guessed the duo were chosen by director Chelsea Haberlin as the best for the roles. I wish I could say my response had any impact, but it is a prime example of while diversity in casting might be important, it will be just as important to help change audience biases as well.)
Under Chelsea Haberlin’s direction, there are a few fleeting moments of rollicking fun and heartfelt truth, but she can’t overcome this show’s predictability. One does wonder though, just how long it took to rehearse the opening scene?
Set designer Drew Facey’s set is as massive as it is exquisitely detailed. Itai Erdal’s lighting and Matthew MacDonald-Bain’s sound design help ensures Alex’s numerous steps beyond the fourth wall are both whimsical and precise. Joel Grinke’s projections are an interesting addition, with Facetime conversations a nod to the technology that is quickly transforming traditions.
The Day Before Christmas is familiar fare. All you need to do is turn on your television. But this is theatre, and we should expect more.
The Day Before Christmas by Stacey Kaser and Alison Kelly. Directed by Chelsea Haberlin. An Arts Club Theatre Company production. On stage at the BMO Theatre Centre through December 24. Visit http://artsclub.com for tickets and information.