Clint Black, country music star, produced his sixth studio album in 1995. Looking for Christmas explores the feelings the holidays generate, from standing “Under the Mistletoe,” to the wise, self-deprecating, “Slow as Christmas”: “Every Christmas day makes other days seem long/And what seemed would never get here/Has so quickly come and gone. Come and gone…”
Black and James D. Sasser created a musical based on the album. Now in its world premiere at the Old Globe Theatre, the mildly entertaining piece has a tentative, no-risk feel, when kicking things up, here and there, would make it more poignant.
Musicals with a Christmas theme usually have major obstacles to overcome. Ebenezer Scrooge needs three creepy ghosts and temporary omniscience to learn to love others. George Bailey, who campaigns for affordable housing in It’s a Wonderful Life, must understand his value to the community. And the Grinch must overcome chronic Whoville issues.
In Looking for Christmas, Mike “Whiskey” Randolf’s an Army medic/staff sergeant serving in Afghanistan. As he and his unit look forward to a possible leave for the holidays, they sing “A Mind To,” a knee-slapping rouser about what they’ll do when they rotate back to the world. They’ve just one more patrol, in a dangerous part of town — an expression as ominous as it is predictable.
As they search door-to-door by flashlight, an explosion kills Douglas Miller, Mike’s best friend. Mike has always taken care of everyone else. This time he was too late. Now the question becomes: can Mike “take care of himself”?
At home, Mike’s daughter Ellie’s also in a panic. She’ll be playing one of the three wise men in the local pageant (and wonders “Why not a wise woman?”). Her father must be home in time to see show!
Mike’s back. But instead of the “Magical Christmas” wife Jessie wishes for him, he suffers from post traumatic stress at the loss of his best friend. But a surprise guest comes along: Doug’s ghost practically taunts Mike with forgiveness. As a reminder of Doug’s presence, the refrigerator door opens on its own.
The show’s set-up shows promise: A Christmas reunion for a military family deflated by tragedy. But what follows feels held back, as if reticent to emote. There’s also strangeness: when Mike walks in the door, Ellie gives him a cursory hug, then waxes ecstatic that he’ll see her pageant. It’s as if the musical’s trapped between Real World pain, and the demands of an upbeat Christmas show. It consistently opts for the latter.
There’s one exception. When the wives meet for the first time since Doug died, they hug as if trying to warm each other on the coldest night of the year. This is the only instance where pain and sorrow feel genuine. The rest of the time the loss and Mike’s post traumatic stress are more obstacles to overcome than infinite aches: if we can just get past this grief, the pageant — and the musical — will be fine.
Clint Black’s music has an engaging, personal quality, as if he’s half of an ongoing dialogue with you. The score doesn’t include “Slow as Christmas,” which might be too reflective. Backed by Matt Hinkley’s seven-piece band, which often overpowered the singers when I caught the show, the music’s too homogenized. It could use a stronger country rinse. And two songs were too toned down.
Affecting as Mike, Aaron C. Finley sings a competent version of Black’s “The Kid” (longing to return to when Santa “believed in me and overlooked the flaws that grow inside” as one ages). But Finley could take it deeper. Sydnee Winters (Alissa) also does a competent job with “Never Knew Love” (“What if I never knew you/ What if I never knew love?”). But this song begs to be belted. Throw your head and shoulders back, stop the show, and startle the heavens!
No song stops the show. Everything’s in a hurry. Also, many scenes are just long enough to prepare for the next number. As a result, characters are underwritten. Each is a dominant trait, which is a shame, since the cast could do much more. Several have Broadway credits, and newcomer DeLeon Dallas (Doug) should have them soon. It’s as if the show is governed not by the music or the script but by what you could call the “90 Minute Barrier.” This is the no-intermission deadline: pare away anything that might run over.
Maybe this is why the book’s so by-the-numbers predictable. Things progress in recognizable stages with never any doubt. The happy ending happens because it’s supposed to. But Mike has PTSD. Even aided by Doug’s ghost and the Christmas spirit, his turnabout’s awfully swift.
Local wizard Sean Fanning has two sets in town: the ghostly Victorian interior for Doll’s House, Part 2 at the Rep, and a minimal ice blue floor for Looking. Thanks to Rui Rita’s lighting, the stage can be intimate or expansive, as when the pageant arrives. Charlotte Devaux has designed many elegant period costumes for the Old Globe. She should win an award for excellence in bad outfits: two Christmas sweaters, one olive drab, the other a distressing brown, must rank among the most gruesome ever on a Globe stage.
Looking for Christmas, music and lyrics by Clint Black, book by Black and James D. Sasser.
Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, Conrad Prebys Theatre Center, Balboa Park.
Directed by Kent Nicholson; cast: Aaron C. Finley, Kaylin Hedges, Liana Hunt, DeLeon Dallas, Syndee Winters, Reese McCullough, Bryant Martin, Scott Richard Foster, Bobby Chiu, Veda Cienfuegos, Giovanni Cozic, Lauren Ellen Thompson, Katie Sapper, Lauren Livia Muehl, Ranne Acasio; scenic design, Sean Fanning, costumes, Charlotte Devaux, lighting, Rui Rita, sound, Leon Rothenberg.
Playing through December 31; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00 pm. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 pm. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 pm.