Written and directed by Kenn McLaughlin, with music by David Nehls, A Midnight Clear opens with three Ohio nuns preparing for a Christmas concert, quibbling over what kind of music should be included. The set and costumes—with traditional habits, a piano, and rather minimalistic space—fit the scenes well and dramatize the modesty of their lives.
At face value, I was thrilled to hear Stages Repertory Theatre would offer this shiny world premiere for their holiday fare. A new entrant is like getting an early Christmas present measured against the predictable, traditional shows that might be fun, but seem a little tired.
The good news is the singing in this show is wonderful. With Stages favorites Carolyn Johnson and Kelley Peters, one is never disappointed with their vocal performances, and Megan Van De Hey as Head Sister Agnes is also perfect for her role. Hearing her sing “O, Holy Night” is worth the price of the ticket, and the inevitable performance of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” by all three was a highlight.
Harder to follow is the story itself—a weird ride involving the appearance of a wandering stranger named Ray (Brad Goertz), a war veteran with his own issues. Don’t get me wrong—Goertz is a fine actor, and I loved hearing him sing. In fact, at one point in the show, I closed my eyes to hear his voice and decided some country record label needs to sign him ASAP.
Then enters Emily, played by Kristin Warren, who is also wonderful to hear. The problem is her convoluted origin story. Is she dead? Is she alive? Is this some kind of Christian gothic tale? I mean, what is really going on? What is the takeaway from this story? I couldn’t really follow the contortions of this implausible story, and I wasn’t sure if I really cared. I just wanted to hear more of the singing.
Here, the whole premise of the show is this Christmas concert, so I am all set up only to have it disappear. The plot lines don’t connect well, with balls thrown up that never come back down. Remember Chekhov’s famous gun—the principle that everything must be relevant to the story? Of course you do. He said: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there."
Maybe the “I Saw Three Ships/Joy to the World” medley was the show? Not entirely sure. Then we learn Sister Bernadette (Carolyn Johnson) was married once to a war hero who died, and she sings a really sad song about her marriage. I thought she might hook up with Ray, the wandering stranger who has also been scarred by war, but no dice.
When I left the theater, what I kept obsessing about was Kelley Peters’ outstanding Stages performance as Patsy Cline. Her stellar work made me think about the country star all the time. Likewise, I kept obsessing about Carolyn Johnson’s superlative Stages performance as Judy Garland. I did not care much at all about Judy Garland, but after seeing that show, I haven't looked at that tragic superstar the same. These two are that good, and their talents are muted by this show's meandering, fruitless storyline. Having a “best of” past performances is sometimes better than trying something new—just a thought.
For A Midnight Clear, focus on the beautiful voices and don’t worry too much about the story—it is like math that doesn’t add up. Instead, write Santa right away, and ask that Stages bring back Carolyn Johnson as Judy Garland, before the talent fairies whisk her away to another show or another theater—or heaven forbid, Hollywood. That would be the worst coal in a stocking Houston could ever receive.
Thru Dec. 24. Tickets from $25. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy. 713-527-0123. More info and ticket at stagestheatre.com.