All but the most Scrooge-struck will find Martina McBride ’s “The Joy of Christmas” an enthralling visual and musical adventure. The show opened Nov. 26 in Philadelphia and will tour through Dec. 22 when the curtain comes down for the last time in St. Paul.
The staging is spellbinding, especially for children. It features a backdrop of three gigantic video screens — with a constantly shifting procession of still and moving holiday scenes — as well as a variety of three-dimensional sets constructed on the multi-level stage. It’s all very busy and quite in harmony with the frenzy of the season itself.
In the opening sequence, the screens simulate elegant London townhouses on both sides of the stage and a curtained proscenium in the middle. Fashionably dressed people “move” to the townhouse balcony windows to watch as the curtain “rises” to reveal an orchestra in full swing. (The people and orchestra are illusory, of course. McBride sings to prerecorded tracks throughout.)
During the remainder of the show, the screens depict such visual delights as streets filled with Christmas shoppers, snow-covered mountains (with a shooting star streaking overhead), gift wrapping, home videos of McBride’s family on Christmas morning, an animation of “The Night Before Christmas,” Santa’s toy shop, falling snowflakes, a cathedral interior, “stained glass” nativity scenes and religious paintings.
Onstage, McBride is supported by a troupe of about 10 actors/dancers and her two daughters, Delaney and Emma.
The music is all traditional, and the first half of the performance is strictly secular. In it, McBride sings “Let It Snow,” “Silver Bells,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Jingle Bells,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “The Christmas Song.” Her more somber and religious second-half offerings are “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “White Christmas,” “Deck the Halls,” “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” “Joy to the World,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Silent Night,” “What Child Is This” and “O Holy Night.”
The most ingratiating moments come during the first half when McBride goes into the audience to talk to children and their parents (as their images are projected onto the screens). She then brings a group of the kids onstage to sit around her as she reads “The Night Before Christmas” and leads them in carols.
Among the best production numbers is one with McBride portraying a stylish young Victorian mother (and singing the anachronistic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”) and another in which actors play out a World War II separation fantasy while the singer croons “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
It takes a singer of McBride’s power and presence to stand out against such commanding visuals, and she does so with aplomb, interacting good-naturedly with the audience as she wrings every scintilla of drama from the all-too-familiar songs.
The show, including a brief intermission, lasts about an hour and a half. This week’s tour stops include Thursday (Dec. 5) in Detroit, Friday (Dec. 6) in Evansville, Ind., and Saturday (Dec. 7) in Champaign, Ill.