“You know,” Matthew McGee said during a brainstorming meeting, “I could write a good Christmas show.”
Eric Davis – the creative patriarch at freeFall Theatre, and McGee’s boss – threw down the gauntlet. “Then do it,” he told his community outreach and marketing director, “and let’s see what happens.”
Out of that lightbulb moment comes The Night Before, opening today and running through Dec. 24. Inspired by (among many other things) freeFall’s 2018 multi-melody mashup The Musical of Musicals and last year’s bizarro production The War of the Worlds, McGee came up with a Christmastime musical he says “really feels like Pee-wee’s Playhouse meets an Andy Williams Christmas Special. It’s got a lot of warmth, but it’s also sort of wacky.”
McGee’s partner in wackiness was freeFall musical director Michael Raabe, who not only contributed to the script, but wrote several new holiday songs and new arrangements of seasonal favorites.
The play brings together four friends for a holiday party. Because their schedules are so packed, the only day they could get together was Dec. 23 (i.e. the night before the night before Christmas).
It takes place in Raabe’s Florida apartment, and it’s unseasonably cold and snowing outside (“because of climate change,” McGee laughs). Because they’re stuck, they perform holiday songs and have all manner of comic misadventures.
“The premise is thin, it’s not groundbreaking,” says McGee, “but for some reason I thought that people would love the idea of a group of people getting together in Florida, and suddenly they get snowed in.
“And we make fun of things, we talk about local stuff and laugh about being snowed in in Florida. There’s all this sort of immediacy to it that’s a lot of fun.”
Raabe’s co-stars are Hilary Lewis (Marie and Rosetta), Sara Del Beato (Every Christmas Story Ever Told) and freeFall newcomer James David Larson. “We found this weird little group of people and created a show for them,” McGee explains.
Two additional characters are played by puppets (cue the Pee-wee theme). There’s another resident of the snowed-in apartment – a cat named Stephen Sondheim.
The cast, and director McGee, were in the middle of rehearsal when news of the legendary composer’s death arrived last week.
“We had a lot of references to Sondheim being alive, and ‘isn’t it great that he’s still with us?’ Michael has this great parody song called ‘A Very Sondheim Christmas.’
“Now, this has become a great tribute to him. We even have his picture framed on top of the piano. So it’s a love letter. We found a way to keep all of the references but make them a real tribute.”
Traditionally, shows created in-house, from the ground up, have been among the best-attended at freeFall.
McGee says there’s a reason for that. Enthusiasm is infectious.
“Doing theater as long as I have, I can say that when you enjoy the show, and you enjoy the process, the audience will sense the joy.
“We’ve had such a good time putting it together. Everyone’s smiling. Everyone’s laughing. And Eric said ‘I want a sequel to this.’”
Tickets are here.