‘Christmas on the Square’, an earnest holiday musical
I didn’t expect to find ‘Christmas on the Square’ moving. But I should have, because Dolly Parton is involved, and she’s unequivocally one of the most emotionally-moving people on the planet. She donates so much of her money (including a million dollars to fund a COVID vaccine), donates books to every child in Tennessee, and has made music that touched all our hearts.
This film is an earnestly-staged, legitimate musical. The sets feel like an upscale theatrical production, but it works. The background dancers and chorus do full choreography, and it truly felt like a joyous stage production I got to watch on my couch.
I love holiday movies, so I’m familiar with all the standard criticisms of them. Like many such films, Christmas on the Square is full of hope and tropes. Fullerville is a beautiful town of diverse residents who all care for one another, and they band together against the evil Christine Baranski (perfectly cast as the bitter Regina Fuller). Regina is over the town, and bitter about how her life turned out, so she agrees to sell the entire town to a developer who will build the hilariously-named Cheetah Mall. Like a reverse Santa Claus, she storms through the town delivering eviction notices and nearly running over doctors.
But lo, what’s that? Oh, just an angelic Dolly Parton there to teach her about the meaning of Christmas. She’s an angel named Angel, helping out Felicity (Jeannie Mason) on a quest to earn her wings by changing Regina’s mind. I love Jeannie on Roswell, and it was a joy to see her dance and sing here. The cast is incredible, with special credit going to Mack (Matthew Johnson), whose beautiful voice and tearful performance added emotional gravitas to the film just when it needed it.
Mack’s wonderful daughter Violet is a child bartender (go with it) who pours herself a chocolate milk and fills Regina’s glass with whiskey. But she also fills Regina’s heart with shame, when Regina realizes her desire for profit may have led to the events that killed Violet’s mother, my word.
It all sounds incredibly dramatic, but it’s perfect for a musical. Musicals need clear-cut villains and heroes to work. Pastor Christian (Josh Segarra) and his hot fat babe of a wife Jenna (Mary Lane Haskell) are our sweet heroes. They’re kind, they just want a baby, and they organize a peaceful resistance to Regina’s plans. The townspeople are mildly bloodthirsty, particularly one old lady who really, really wants to rough Regina up a little. I love this woman with my whole heart.
The songs are also great! Heavy hitters from Broadway and past Parton productions bring them to new heights, too. Jenifer Lewis sings an incredible song rebuking Regina while she does her hair. The full cast singing “Wickedest Witch of the Middle” is, dare I say, an absolute banger. Matthew Johnson’s reprise of “A Father’s Prayer” is absolutely gorgeous.
The heartwarming twist with Jenna and Pastor Christian was wildly cliché. But I don’t care. I don’t even care that Dolly spends a good chunk of the movie floating on a ridiculous CGI cloud!
I hope community theaters across the country stage this musical. It’s a little heavy on God talk, but the more important message is empathy, and we could all use more of that this year.