Encore Michigan

‘A Very Williamston Christmas’ is a funny nod to small-town Michigan yule

Review December 02, 2022 Julie Linderleaf

WILLIAMSTON, MI–Christmas cookies, happy endings, and a whole lot of Peppermint Schnapps is the perfect way to ring in the holiday season.  Williamston Theatre is doing just this with a world premiere opening this wintery holiday season with A Very Williamston Christmas. 

Written by emerging playwright Robert Hawlmark; he’s definitely giving the Hallmark Channel a run for their money! The Hallmark Movie Channel is widely known to produce mass amounts of romantic heart-warming holiday movies, and this play parallels every cheesy love-filled movie plot-line but with a lot more laughs and personal connections to Williamston and the Lansing area.  Williamston Theatre’s Managing Director Christine Purchis states in the program that Hawlmark must have done his research about the area. With a little of my own research, it appears his roots begin in Haslett just a few short miles between the small town of Williamston and the Capital city of Lansing. 

That’s where this feel good romantic comedy begins: on a giant floating projection screen shaped a bit like a Christmas card: The recognizable skyline of a snowy downtown Lansing pans into view.  Projectionist Alison Dobbins expertly pieced together photography from Purchis and drone footage from Eldon McGraw Media to add humorous transitions and playful scenes to add to Bartley H. Bauer’s revolving set design and stage pieces. 

This new Hawlmark kind of classic begins with Felice Navi, delightfully played by Dani Cochrane, a budding businesswoman for Eared Property Management in the “frenetic pace of Lansing” with an evil boss that dangles her career over her head two days before Christmas.  He demands that she go to the small town of Williamston to acquire an antique store that has fallen far behind in its mortgage payments so he could build a condominium in its place and make lots of money that all Lansing business people are rolling in. 

Williamston just so happens to be the sweet, small town where Felice learned to play the sousaphone and bake cookies with her dad… “before the accident.” Poor Felice is feeling the holiday stress from: her mom who wants her home for the holidays; her boss who is demanding a business deal before the Christmas holiday; and her boyfriend/fiance’/ex-boyfriend Jack that needs more out of life than just work. When she gets to Williamston, she finds more than business she has to sort out and happens upon an old flame, played by Ryan Patrick Welsh. Emily Sutton-Smith and Joe Bailey fill in the rest of the supporting roles, and energize the tale.

The sneering Mr. Eared is only one of the characters that Mr. Bailey breathes life into in this production.  He also plays Felice’s estranged boyfriend Jack, George’s retired father and even George’s 8-year-old son Danny complete with a lisp. 

Ms. Sutton-Smith takes on all of other female characters: Barb the Lansing city office bestie that hears and and see all; Felice’s mom Mrs. Navi who just can’t get enough Peppermint Schnapps; and the mysterious “old lady.” She makes the character changes quite hilarious with frequent reminders that Felice can’t be with her mom AND her best friend Barb at the same time. Her character changes are so subtle yet so different that I almost thought there were more actors in this production–until Ms. Sutton-Smith, as Mom, needed to switch to Barb and had to hand off her cookie-tray to an audience member in order to quickly change into Barb right on stage.  

Director Tony Caselli must have had a ball directing this band of actors because even after a number of performances in front of a laughing audience, the actors had many instances where they too had a hard time not breaking up–especially at moments that gave Ms. Sutton-Smith and Mr. Bailey extremely little time to change characters. Eventually, all the characters are out and about in Williamston and Mr. Bailey has some whirlwind changes to do and even warns Mr. Welsh he’s a bit sweaty as he prepares “his dad” for a hug. Costume designer Karen Kangas-Preston created the perfect attire that made each character stand out separately. 

Audiences cackled and cooed over the storyline and all the references to the towns they love and live in: The antique shop that is named after two beloved stores in Williamston: Old Plank Road and Sign of the Pineapple, The D&W, Starbucks, Tractor Pulls, Kewpies, orange cones and construction, smelly waste water sewage treatment plants, gazebos. Lugnuts are tagged. The LAFCU (a credit union) is not only mentioned, but a show sponsor. 

There is an old Christmas tradition of placing oranges in the toe of a Christmas stocking. Here, the playright gives us orange barrels to make it indelibly a Michigan, and specifically a Lansing/Williamston story. But have no fear, the play finishes on a hopeful note. It wouldn’t be a Hallmark, or Hawlmark, Feliz Navidad without one.

In all, A Very Williamston Christmas is a very welcome new addition to the Christmas theatre canon, and will surely delight MIchiganders looking to have a cool yule.

Week of 7/15/2024

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