Mrs. Claus’ Kitchen gets cooking
Fittingly, it was over hot chocolate last Christmas season that writing partners and old friends Bill Allman, Alan Marriott, and Kevin O’Brien realized there was one character who had been seriously neglected in holiday theatre and movie fare. Mrs. Claus, other than a few appearances as the kindly, heavy-set sidekick in those old Rankin-Bass Christmas specials, has long lived in the shadow of her celebrity husband. You’d be hard-pressed to even come up with her first name.
“We said, ‘She’s window-dressing and that’s so unfair because she’s got a story,’ ” explains Allman, a local entertainment lawyer who’s also penned numerous screenplays and stage shows like Newer! Bigger! Better! as well as managing the Vogue Theatre.
A history grad who also saw the makings of a new Christmas musical, Allman eagerly went to work, researching the character and digging into lore from the late 19th century. What he found astounded him.
“She was an equal partner in things and she even went out on the sleigh with him,” he says of Mrs. Claus in stories from the 1800s. “We were pleasantly surprised and disappointed that nobody had carried that forward and felt there was a tremendous amount of fun to be had.”
The result is Mrs. Claus’ Kitchen, a rollicking musical complete with kooky elves and magical cookies that Allman and his team hope will become a new tradition amid the holiday shows—to “add something fresher to the buffet”, as Allman puts it.
In the new song-and-dance show, directed and choreographed by musical-theatre veteran Jeff Hyslop, Mrs. Claus is ready to farm out the making of the special cookies she bakes at Christmas. Feeling underappreciated and wanting to have more free time to connect with her jelly-bellied hubby, she hands over her business to a big corporation. But something seems to be missing from the factory-made versions.
The writers have set it all in the early ’60s, tapping all the nostalgia there is around old Christmas specials from that era. And in a way, its messages are nostalgic too: “One of the themes we hit on was time—nobody takes time for anything anymore,” says Allman, who hopes the show has a life far beyond this season, and beyond Vancouver. “We wanted to stop the world and reflect.”
Actor Elizabeth Bowen is only too happy to tackle the lead role, and is thrilled the old gal is finally getting the attention she deserves. “She’s sort of the real power behind the throne,” she says over the phone between rehearsals. “But it’s interesting, because you never really know anything about her: she’s always just the kindly, crinkly-eyed old lady who bakes.”
In this show, she bakes—but she’s more empowered. “Not to make it too heavy, but she’s kind of learning how to be out there in the world on her own, to be a businesswoman and stand on her own two feet,” says Bowen, a Vancouver TheatreSports League veteran.
Among the many challenges of the role is the fact the show is interactive: kids will get a chance to help out on-stage at a crucial moment in the story. “We break the fourth wall, which I’ve never had any use for anyway,” jokes Allman. “Interactivity was important because it’s about bringing people together.”
Mrs. Claus also has to put up with an unruly pair of prankster elves—one, according to Allman, a “direct descendant” of Shakespeare’s Puck, the other based loosely on Krampus, the grotesque bad Santa of German myth. “They’re always getting into something. It’s like dealing with children,” Bowen says.
The biggest challenge for her, however, has been having to do so much singing and hoofing at the same time—though she’s glad to have one of the best, in Hyslop, guiding her. Confides Allman: “To see it get on its feet in Jeff Hyslop’s hands has truly been one of the highlights of my life.”
For Bowen, donning the red housedress and taking on Mrs. Claus has been a fun exercise in righting history—even if she has to act a little bit older than her real age. “She’s 500 years old, so she has a few years on me, but she’s got a young, wise spirit,” she says with a laugh. “What drew me to the script was that they wanted Mrs. Claus to be sassy, to show that she’s kind of a spitfire.”