OGDEN — Going to see a world premiere of a new musical can be, as Forrest Gump says, a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re gunna get. Instead of chocolates, Weber State’s premiere of Matchstick Girl ended up being a stack of marzipan rings, adding layer upon layer of meaning and depth to create a stunning showpiece that I was happy to indulge in and left me feeling like I would gladly return again for more.
Matchstick Girl: A New Musical is a collaboration with book and lyrics by Jennifer A. Kokai with music and additional lyrics by Kenneth Plain. The plot is based on the very short story by Hans Christian Anderson called The Little Matchstick Girl which is only a page or two long about a young girl who uses her little matches to warm herself on a cold New Year’s Eve. She seems to have fantastical visions of warmth, food, and Christmas cheer before her body is found frozen to death on New Years Day.
From this very short, sad tale, Kokai broadens the scene to add fleshed out characters and makes the girl’s dreams even bigger and more fantastical to add layers of meaning to the story. The exposition of the play happens quickly in the opening number “New Year’s Eve in the City” with the ensemble flowing across the stage in beautiful Victorian garb by costume designer Catherine Zublin. The composition sounds like an old Christmas carol and the whole scene feels like a set up for a Charles Dicken’s-type story. Contrasting the lavish costumes of the rich carolers is the poor urchin matchstick girl, Sophia, played by Jaden Chandie Nandkeshwar who has the voice of an angel. Sophia just wants to sell her matches to survive in the cold, cruel world. She sings of losing her mother and grandmother and the hard lot she has been dealt, but still has hope. Nandkeshwar’s performance has so much nuance and beauty with songs like “Threads of Love” and A “Tiny Sputtering Candle” that I really cared about her character’s journey and was moved to tears by the end of the show.
The main reason to care about Sophia the Matchgirl’s plight is because she runs into Johan Hansen (Taylor Garlick), a boy who used to play with Sophia when they were children. Johan is young, rich, and heading with his friends to a New Year’s Eve Party when he sees Sophia peddling her matches. Johan is the character in turmoil. His songs “A Kind Man” and “Resolution” are thought provoking as we see him struggle with questions of what it means to be a man and how to become the kind of person one wants to be. While Johan has lived a life of privilege, he has a lot of complexity as he wrestles with the big questions of the show. As he tells Sophia about “Marzipan Rings” which are his favorite yule-tide treat, it is obvious that he has struggled with loneliness and uncertainty about his place in the world.
The play deals with some heart-breaking themes like abuse. Sophia’s father Karl (Jacob Coates) is a cruel man to send his daughter out into the cold night to sell matches to keep him supplied with alcohol. The most touching song of the evening was sung by Sophia’s grandmother Clara (Demi Lamb). The song “Lullaby (Stars May Fall)” brought me to tears as Clara held Sophia. Director Andrew Barratt Lewis staged the moment perfectly as Clara comes to her granddaughter and holds her close as her spirit leaves her body and the two exit together.
While the show offers a lot of large societal questions to ponder on, there is also just the right amount of comic relief offered by Kirsten (Chelsea Christensen), a quirky and cute love interest for Johan who loves her stray cats. Her song “A Small Simple Favor” is all about her cats and her attempts to “swoon” to help Johan are hilarious.
From the leads to the ensemble, the acting is excellent and tells the story in a clear and meaningful way. But what really makes this an outstanding new production is the music. Music composer/director/conductor/pianist Kenneth Plain leads the outstanding nine-piece live orchestra which hides behind the scrim, hidden from the audience’s line of sight. Plain’s compositions are varied and interesting, perfectly balanced to the mood of each song. I left wishing I could get a copy of the music so I could listen and reflect on the songs more.
The technical elements of the show are excellent. Catherine Zublin’s costume design is cohesive throughout, giving a strong sense of place for Denmark in the mid-1800s. Sofia has an impressive on-stage quick change into an exquisite white gown during one of her magic match moments that is particularly stunning. The scenic design by Cully Long is open and tasteful, with bold streetlamps and snow covered trees setting the scene and a large projected clock inexorably pushing toward the New Year. All of the technical elements were good, but I love that the show really hinged on asking soul-searching questions of Johan, and by extension the audience. The questions are posed through lyrics that are full of lovely imagery making the music rich and complicated.
I can see Matchstick Girl becoming a beloved yule-tide show like A Christmas Carol, which audiences love to return to again and again each year to reflect on the problems we can see in ourselves and society and resolving, like Johan, to go out into the world and try to make it a better place.