Bleak and pitiful tales of neglected children don't tend to make for the most sought-after holiday entertainment. But take a tale by Hans Christian Andersen, subtract the untimely death, add in music, magic and a Centennial Showboat decked out in garlands and lights, and you have the ingredients for an evening of entertainment in "The Match Girl's Gift: A Christmas Story."
Set in turn-of-the-century New York, "The Match Girl's Gift" opens with a series of carols offered by a chorus of happy revelers preparing for their holiday. It's a charming introduction marked by unique musical choices ranging from the obscure but delightful 16th-century carol "Fum, Fum, Fum" to a beautifully rendered "Sing We All Noel." Then, as this brightly costumed chorus hurries away to their homes, denoted by a painted backdrop of elegant brownstones and warmly lit windows, one figure remains. A drab, bedraggled match girl, shivering and forlorn, offers "In the Bleak Midwinter" as a final carol. It's a lovely moment and a fine scene-setter for what's to follow.
Just as in Andersen's version, Lizzie has been sent out in the streets on Christmas Eve by a callous and impoverished parent to hawk matches. Here she's joined by Pitch, a young chimney sweep eager to be beguiled by Lizzie's stories of a brighter future as they linger outside the home of a wealthy family. Lizzie, however, has lost hope and is consumed with a presentiment of early death.
Offered three visions by the ghost of her beloved grandmother, Lizzie has the opportunity to enter the comfortable yet troubled world of the wealthy family on whose doorstep she's huddled. Over the course of these scenes, she teaches the family an important lesson about love, a lesson that ultimately saves her own life.
It's a simple, charming story, and this production, under Rebekah Rentzel's direction, presents it well. Scarlett Thompson, who looks every inch a waif, gives an earnest, assured and occasionally feisty performance as Lizzie, while Jillian Jacobson provides humor as her loyal friend Pitch. David W. Potter's richly detailed set ably evokes the fussy comfort of a Victorian house, while his painted backdrop is an apt touch that echoes the ambiance of the Centennial Showboat stage. Similarly, Sue Ellen Berger's highly contrasted lighting design highlights the two worlds of this play.
"The Match Girl's Gift" is a slender little piece, but within this festive setting and bookended by lovely music, it's an event that offers all you could expect of a holiday show.