Theater Review: THE CHRISTMAS FOUNDLING (Pride Films and Plays in Chicago)

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by Lawrence Bommer on December 9, 2019

in Theater-Chicago

A GOLD RUSH NATIVITY

You could call it a second coming of Christmas from our Golden West. Delivered with the grit and gusto of 19th century raconteur Bret Harte, The Christmas Foundling is a likable tale from the California Gold Rush, specifically a late-blooming nativity on Christmas Eve. Norman Allen’s 2001 period piece, now warmed up by directors Danne W. Taylor and David Zak for Pride Films and Plays, spins the affecting story of a baby whose mother dies of cold and who is then reared by two gold prospectors in Piney Gulch, a hollow in the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains. Tracing his life from 1850 through 1862, this very musical chronicle celebrates good hearts in tough times where being strong and hard were not the same thing.

A Scottish immigrant who’s found his own highlands in America, Old Jake (Michael D. Graham) joins with his partner (and possibly more) Hoke (Fiore Barbini) to raise little Tom (Henry Lombardo, a remarkable fifth-grader and thespian). The sudden fathers charge money for the other illiterate miners (named after their origins) to see him: Boston (Zane Sade), bumptious and hearty; Moscow (Leo LaCamera), in love with Pushkin’s poems; and Georgia (Max McKune), a country guy with a few too many prejudices.

Improvising child care, these tough-loving panhandling pioneers feed the child with milk from Boston’s accommodating goat. Alas, as they protect the kid from mountain lions and more, they’re unable to answer his questions about his origins. But that all changes with the arrival of Tom’s Aunt Sarah (BethAnn Smukowski) from Boston, looking for her sister and not expecting to see her new nephew.

Not surprisingly, Sarah means to “rescue” the lost lad from these gruff Forty Niners and, as another aunt did for Huckleberry Finn, civilize him in Massachusetts’ “hub of the universe.” Sarah is certain that “two men can’t raise a child.” Of course, this impasse sets up a low-key custody battle as the play and its characters wrestle with what’s best for the boy: Freedom and folk songs under a big sky, accompanied by illiteracy and isolation — or stolid respectability among the Brahmins of Beacon Hill?

The answer is happily worked out in two acts and 90 minutes, time enough for some sweet songs arranged and written by music director Dr. Michael McBride. Cleverly enough, the great equalizer between Western freedom and Eastern elegance turns out to be something as basic as the ability to read. There’s also a clear comparison to another Nativity, with miners substituting for shepherds tending their flocks by night.

The stiff blocking and sometimes unsmooth acting of the opening weekend will surely yield to a more assured pace. Happily, the several songs are already natural enough. Pride Plays’s blast from the past retroactively enlarges the concept of proper parents. The real gold here can’t be sluiced from the streams.

photos by Cody Jolly

The Christmas Foundling
Pride Films and Plays
Pride Arts Center, The Broadway, 4139 N. Broadway in Chicago
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 2; Mon at 8 (dark 12/16); Thurs at 8 (Jan 2 only)
ends on January 5, 2020
for tickets, call 773-857-0222 or 866-811-4111 or visit Pride Films

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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