Ah, there’s nothing quite like a pagan holiday tale, one filled with a hairy, horned creature, frightened children, and kidnapping. Why, yes, it does sound German, doesn’t it? In a brilliant bit of counter programming to the countless incarnations of A Christmas Carol at this time of year, Short North Stage proudly presents Krampus, A Yuletide Tale, at The Garden Theatre, a terrifically trippy new musical based on the legend of the creature who punishes all of the children on the naughty list. The audience sits on the stage where the action takes place in this environmental production, only adding to its giddy delights.
Based on German folklore about the yeti-goat cloven-hooved monstrosity, Krampus, A Yuletide Tale is smartly written by the husband and wife team of Nils-Petter Ankarblom and Carrie Gilchrist, with the former composing a lush and tuneful score while the latter reins in directing duties. The story is about single mother Anna Schlecht (Stephanie Prince) struggling to make ends meet by having her children, Flora (Emma Lou Andrews) and Bruno (William Gorgas), sell her knitting in order to pay their cruel landlord, Herr Ulrich (Luke Stewart), for their lodging. The kids happen upon a lost wallet and lie that they earned the money from selling their mother’s wares. It just so happens that it is the night of December 5th (not the 24th or 25th), the evening when good kids are rewarded by Saint Nicholas (Edward Carignan) and bad children are kidnapped and punished by Krampus (JJ Parkey). Of course the kids are taken from their mother and transported to a phantasmagoric place high in the mountains that is dark and evil-looking, driving their mother to accuse their landlord of being involved with their abduction and holding him hostage! While awaiting rescue, Flora and Bruno also encounter Saint Nicholas and discover the strange partnership he has with Krampus.
Edward Carignan not only adeptly plays the rather conniving Saint Nicholas as a kind of heavily accented and bossy chef (his hair is frosted and up, resembling a chef’s hat), but he is also responsible for the highly stylized and spot-on costume and set design. The action takes place on several levels on a set that honestly looks a bit treacherous, and below it is Krampus’s forest, which is only revealed when the kids are kidnapped. There is a synergy between the exaggerated sets and colors used in the costumes that only enhances the story as there is always something interesting to discover. Krampus himself is no minor achievement, sporting a horned headpiece and long blonde hair. He’s frightening at first, but JJ Parkey has a singing voice so pure and sweet (“Eternal Winter” is a standout in the score) that it is hard to fear him for long. The story is also one in which the children’s lives are never really in danger as it is said that Krampus will be returning the children to their mother eventually. Personally, I would’ve enjoyed a bit more aggressive action and peril in the story, but that would probably have pushed it beyond the family-friendly territory it stays within here.
Emma Lou Andrews and William Gorgas make for a terrific pair on stage, and they have the back and forth sibling thing down pat. Stephanie Prince is affectionately true as their mother, quite touching during her solo, “I Can’t Go On,” which pushed my companion to tears. Luke Stewart as Herr Ulrich, the selfish land baron whose heart thaws during the play, turns in a real ear-opening performance as well, especially during “Someone Who Cares,” one of several songs that highlight his superior pipes.
The only real drawback to this production, which I have found to be the case with other Short North Stage productions in The Garden Theatre, is the sound. In this case the band is tremendously over amplified into the speakers that are placed just a few feet away from the performers and the audience. The vocal performances are often drowned out by the music (glorious as it is), and so the levels on their mics are raised to compensate; this results in escalating feedback until their mics are suddenly cut in volume. It happens time and time again, and it’s a testament to the actors and the material that such an invasive issue doesn’t completely wreck the show.
Krampus, A Yuletide Tale is unlike anything I’ve seen before yet feels strangely warm and comforting. Being seated around the periphery of all of the action really adds to the experience, and this is one show that takes some twists and turns that I truly didn’t expect. There are some technical issues to sort out and perhaps the book could benefit from a polish, but what works in this show works so well that I defy anyone to see it and not be fully engaged throughout its seventy-five minute running time. Put me down for the cast recording!
*** 1/2 out of ****
Krampus, A Yuletide Tale continues through to December 20th in The Garden Theatre located at 1187 North High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.shortnorthstage.org/calendar/v/509