THEATER | “The Match Girl’s Gift” on the Minnesota Centennial Showboat: Seems bleak

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My friend Sara remembers a show she heard occasionally on a country radio station when she was growing up: the DJ would collect woeful songs of loss and pathos under the theme “Plumb Pitiful.” Hans Christian Andersen’s 1845 story “The Little Match Girl” falls squarely in the plumb pitiful tradition, and the production of Laurie Brooks’s stage adaptation now playing on the Minnesota Centennial Showboat lays it on thick.

The source material here is rather thin (so to speak). Anderson’s original story has fewer than 1,000 words, only about twice the length of this review—it’s merely a description of the delerious fantasies of a dying urchin. Brooks moves the setting from Denmark to New York City and adds four major characters: match girl Lizzie (Scarlett Thompson) gets a chimney-sweep pal (Jillian Jacobson) and meets a wealthy couple (M. Scott Taulman and Megan Volkman-Wilson) with a bratty son (Ethan Davenport). Lizzie’s deceased grandmother (Naomi Karstad) comes to Lizzie in a vision and tells her to light her matches to be magically transported into the family’s lavish home, where her task is to warm their hearts. Does she succeed? Is the Pope Bavarian?

Even with the expanded cast, the enhanced message of hope, and a chorus performing carols to begin and end the show, The Match Girl’s Gift is one of the bleaker holiday shows you’re likely to find. Taulman is an ogre, Volkman-Wilson is a wilting martyr, and though Davenport turns in a spirited performance, his character is tough to love. Thompson convincingly acts the part of a girl who knows that she’s about to be cast back out into the cold to die. Merry Christmas!

The production does benefit from the incredibly cozy showboat space and a storybook set by David W. Potter. (I’m a sucker for cotton-puff snow.) Under the direction of my friend Rebekah Rentzel, the show feels sure-footed and tightly paced, making dynamic use of the tiny proscenium stage. The audience I saw the show with on November 25—including several children—seemed enraptured by the match girl’s plight.

Though it’s a stiff draught of Innocent Starving Child, The Match Girl’s Gift effectively demonstrates the enduring appeal of Andersen’s story: every warm and festive holiday celebration is haunted by those left out in the cold.

This production is featured in the Daily Planet’s complete guide to holiday theater. Throughout the holiday season, the guide will be updated with links to new Daily Planet reviews—so you’ll know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.

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