With a bit of cooperation from the weather, heading out to see The Match Girl's Gift: A Christmas Story at the Minnesota Centennial Showboat will be like stepping back in time.
"Stepping onto the Showboat is like stepping into a Victorian Christmas and the world of the play itself, especially after the first snowfall," says Rebekah Rentzel, who directs the production.
Based on the Hans Christian Anderson short story, the play takes us into multiple 19th-century worlds, starting with the impoverished experiences of the titular character, who makes what little money she has selling matches. On this holiday, no one has purchased any, and she begins to light them, one by one, for warmth. Her fantasies bring out her long-lost grandmother, who teaches Lizzie how to step into the dreams of a warmer Christmas.
The show was a success last year and returns for another seasonal run in St. Paul, opening this weekend.
Scarlett Thompson plays Lizzie, a role she first took on in last year's production.
"Most audiences absolutely loved the show last year," Thompson says. "It has such a great message, and it was always wonderful to greet the audience after the show and hear what they thought of it. Sometimes we would hear about how people had seen or heard this story before, and they had imagined it would be cold, dark, and pretty sad, but our version really has that magical spark that comes in with the live caroling, and the great cast. The ending is still sad, but the whole show portrays stories of hope, dreams, and imagination."
For the producers, the first goal was to find a piece that fit their chosen venue. "We needed a simple script that we could take and make into a true showboat show," says Adam Ehert. "I found The Match Girl's Gift in June 2010, and fell in love with it from the first reading. The biggest deciding factor that made me want to produce this show was the fact it pulled my heart strings -- and I knew if it pulled my heart strings from just reading it. I had to see it onstage.
"It got a lot of buzz after the show. People would call in to Padelford asking if we were going to perform the show again this year. So I figured if people were asking for it, then we should probably give it to them," Ehert says.
For the second go around, the cast and crew reexamined the work. "This year, we've focused on showing the magic of Lizzie's visions as she travels between the worlds of the cold, dark streets and the warm, bright houses," says Rentzel. "Music Director Brad Bradshaw and I have worked closely to integrate the choir throughout the show, weaving together voice, music, and movement to help tell the story."
Those challenges also have come to the cast, who are a mix of show veterans and newcomers.
"For me it has been a challenge, once again, to suddenly become this poor, starving, little match girl who is on the verge of death. It certainly takes a lot of work to embody this character, but with the help of Rebekah and my awesome cast I think this will be a very believable show, just like last year," Thompson says.
And don't underestimate the power of the space, or of presenting the piece right on the river, notes producer Dayna Jean Wolter.
"I can say that working on the boat and being on the water adds a sense of mystery, and easily transports the audience to the days of being entertained on the river. The river is a vital energy for the Twin Cities area as it is, and being a continuing part of a creative endeavor being fed by the water; it makes it far more endearing to me as an artist," she says.
Ehert has a long history with the boat and he loves to continue to share the unique space with new audiences.
"It's been a joy to work on the Showboat," Ehert says. "I started out as a stage manager in the University of Minnesota's theater program and staged managed five shows on the boat. I credit it as helping mold me for the future."
The Match Girl's Gift: A Christmas Story
Friday through December 31
Minnesota Centennial Showboat, Harriet Island, St. Paul
For information, call 651.227.1100 or visit online.