Austene Van and Thomasina Petrus want to start a warm-hearted holiday tradition, complete with Christmas songs and a shared cup of joy. Hot Chocolate re-teams the pair, who crafted last year's Gee's Bend at Park Square Theatre.
The Christmas-season show draws its roots from a piece Petrus used to do around Valentine's Day. Those pieces grew over the years, even though she often had to schedule the shows around other work. More recently, Petrus had moved the idea of the concert to the holiday season.
"Usually, when I do concerts, I just wing it. But I knew I couldn't wing it for five days, so I needed to write a show. It took me one day to realize I wasn't a writer," she says.
"She came to me and said, 'Let's do a show together,'" says Van. "I want it to be called Hot Chocolate, and I want you to write a musical.'"
With that framework, the veteran playwright began to sift through hundreds of Christmas and holiday songs, looking for the right pieces to fit into the story she wanted to tell. In the play, a couple (Petrus and Julius Collins III) stop after a hectic day of shopping to have a special cup of hot chocolate. That leads them to talking about their relationship, and their respective family traditions.
The songs run the gamut, from traditional pieces like "The Little Drummer Boy" to Nat King Cole to James Brown.
"I never take the lyrics and text and separate them, so I had to scan through all these holiday songs to see which ones might work into the story," Van says. "Then I encouraged Thomasina to write a couple of songs to put into the show. She wrote them and then we had Sanford [Moore, the musical director] put a form to it."
"I wanted to write songs, so I wrote the song 'Hot Chocolate,' and the soul food song. She came up this adorable script. It was the cutest thing ever. That's kind of how it started," Petrus says.
Moore also provided his special touch in bridging distinct pieces of music together, such as one moment that features music by Dan Fogelberg and Stevie Wonder. "I had a dream about that one night," Van says. "Sanford is a genius at making the ideas come alive. It's absolutely beautiful."
The whole process has taken a mere eight months. "It's fun when you get the opportunity to work on topics that touch you with people that you love. I've been working at this for a long time, so I know that you are vulnerable. If it's bad, it's your fault," Van says.
It has resulted in a fast-paced story full of holiday warmth and a budding relationship, along with more than 20 musical numbers, Petrus says. (You can also purchase Petrus's famed cashew brittle, among other locally produced sweets, at the show).
Van is confident audiences will enjoy their time with the characters, the music, and the story. "I want them to tap their feet and clap their hands and really feel nostalgic when those old songs come up and be loud when some of the new songs come up. I just want them to feel good. It's really important around the holiday season to feel good," she says.
"I'm just having fun," Petrus adds. "I'm truly a glass half-full kind of person who believes everyone has the potential to do something great. When you are in a relationship, it's about finding the happy medium; about the ebb and flow of living with the other person."
IF YOU GO:
Park Square Theatre 20 W. 7th Place, St. Paul
Through December 18
For tickets and information, call 651.291.7005 or visit online.