Chirping into the season

Original musical makes Dickens’ Cricket on the Hearth sing

The supernaturals (left to right): Ken Mathieson, Luciano Castaldo, Greta Coon, Clara Coon, Tatiana Soliz and Serina Mawer

The supernaturals (left to right): Ken Mathieson, Luciano Castaldo, Greta Coon, Clara Coon, Tatiana Soliz and Serina Mawer

Photo by jay chang

Cricket on the Hearth shows Thursday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m., & Sunday, 2 p.m., through Dec. 7 (no shows Thanksgiving weekend) at Theatre on the Ridge.
Tickets: $12-$20
Theatre on the Ridge
3735 Neal Road, Paradise

For a charming example of community theater at its holiday best, one need look no further than the Neal Road lodgings of Paradise’s long-running Theatre on the Ridge and its current production of the original musical Cricket on the Hearth. Writer-director Jerry Miller and his writing partner Marcel Daguerre based their most recent collaboration on Charles Dickens’ Victorian-era tale of the same name. And though it may be less well-known than Dickens’ holiday masterpiece, A Christmas Carol, Cricket offers many of the same qualities, plus more in the way of examining the dynamics of the personal relationships of friends, lovers, business colleagues, servants and supernatural intercessors.

As set designer as well as director, Miller has created a variety of well-appointed settings for the play’s action to unfold within, beginning with the eerie, moonlit forest of the opening scene. Here a troop of brownies, sprites and fairies meet with the Spirit of the Forest (Debs Kislingbury-Boivie) in the form of a singing tree, to inform us of their benevolent intentions toward the humans whose homes they watch over in the form of crickets who promote peace and harmony with their gentle chirping. The fanciful woodland costumes and makeup of these supernaturals, along with their gracefully choreographed movements are like Arthur Rackham illustrations come to life, and their “unseen” presence in the domestic scenes that follow convey a fanciful air to each scene they inhabit.

But it’s the humans with their foibles and complications who drive the action and provide the heartfelt emotion that holds the audience rapt throughout the play. It’s hard to imagine a more cohesive set of actors to inhabit this particular cast of characters and portray them with such conviction and vigor. And the sets and finely crafted period costumes keep us in the proper Victorian mode, adding to the believability of the unfolding plot.

The story properly begins when John Peerybingle (Jeff Dickenson), who serves as the village’s postman, brings home an aged, taciturn and seemingly infirm Stranger (Loki Miller). John’s wife, Mary (Jenise Coon)—who is much younger than her kindly husband—accepts the stranger with proper Victorian graciousness, and makes him comfortable with the help of her maid and babysitter, Tilly Slowboy (Teresa Hurley Miller). Soon, neighbors are dropping by to celebrate the following day’s wedding of the elderly, rather morose and sardonic Tackleton (William Petree) and his very young bride-to-be, May Fielding (Eri Nakamura).

During this party scene the musical aspect of the play, as well as the singing talents of the cast, are highlighted by a lively and funny group song, in which each character sings a verse describing how each came to be an inhabitant of this village on the tiny Isle of Man. Another party highlight is May’s solo song, which is requested as a hymn and delivered as a paean to the pagan gods of Mount Olympus. Daguerre’s prerecorded backing music, which combines elements of Celtic themes, British music hall and traditional balladry, provides an authentic-sounding (though occasionally a bit too loud) setting for both the solo voices and exuberant group choruses.

As the party draws to a seemingly happy conclusion, the plot thickens in ways this review will not reveal.

Suffice it to say that any good romantic comedy involves seemingly unresolvable complications and their joyous resolutions, and any good Victorian romantic comedy also involves issues of class, duty, sublimated sexual tension, stereotyped gender identification, and points of highly formalized personal decorum. Cricket on the Hearth covers all of these quaintly antiquated bases, and still hits the emotional nail on the head in a pleasantly tear-jerking way that is true to its source material, but also adds a knowing wink acknowledging that our current romantic relationships are not tremendously different from those experienced in the far-off era inhabited by Dickens’ characters.

The rousing finale literally illustrates the power of interpersonal harmony to dispel all personal difficulties and leaves the audience with an exhilarating rush of shared experience. Bravo!