In his script for “Mr. Dickens’ Hat,” a world premiere “play with music” at Northlight, Michael Hollinger throws together a hatful of Dickensian motifs—Christmas carols, stock characters with telltale names like Prattle and Styfflip, plucky young quasi-orphans, general Victorian misery and even a holiday-time ghost—but fails to produce a magical rabbit or any other pleasing surprise. “Hat” is a muddled feel-good production that cannot decide whether it’s a kiddie play, musical, prolonged vaudeville sketch or theatrical spectacle, and ends up selling its wished-for family audience short.
Directed by David Catlin—who has done better work at Lookingglass Theatre, including an outstanding adaptation of “Moby Dick” that has a visual echo or two here—the show flounders through an intermissionless ninety minutes of prancing feet, mugging faces, funny voices and other tricks that actors resort to when they do not trust their lines. There’s a lot of effort on view, including the innumerable costume changes necessary when six cast members take on twenty-eight different roles, but little actual drama or feeling.
The story revolves around Kit, a loyal young daughter struggling to pay off the debts of her father, who as the play opens is languishing in a debtors prison run by the aptly named Fleece. Fleece is a mustachio-twirling villain of the old school who shakes down his helpless prisoners and their families with the assistance of his idiot sidekick Gnat (Mark David Kaplan). The usually reliable Nick Sandys portrays both Father and Fleece, and not unreasonably seems a touch bored by both campy, undemanding roles. The cast is rounded out by Christine Bunuan as upper-class twit Lady Plume and Kasey Foster as Mrs. Prattle, one-half of Garbleton & Prattle, a hat emporium whose two owners, both recently deprived of their spouses, are about to combine their lives and businesses. Ruchir Khazanchi plays Ned, the simple, good-hearted and dramatically superfluous son of Mr. Garbleton, whose passion is to hear Kit read from the works of Charles Dickens. Speaking of whom, the great novelist’s trademark top hat is the shop’s treasure and the target of a planned theft that—together with a telegraphed hat-related gag—drives the play’s paper-thin plot.
The show has its moments. Cordelia Dewdney is an appealing Kit, displaying just the right mix of feisty and vulnerable. The music, composed by playwright Hollinger, is melodic and well-harmonized, although more incidental to the narrative than integrated into it. Jason Lynch’s lighting has a dusky winter glow, with blue and gold overtones reminiscent of twinkly Christmas lights. And Sully Ratke’s hats are little marvels of fatuous festoonery, some featuring stuffed birds that combine the milliner’s and taxidermist’s art to humorous effect.
Sadly, the play as a whole has a taxidermic quality. Despite the continual busyness on the simply appointed stage, little actually happens, and the broadly played characters have no arc to speak of. Dickens is invoked repeatedly, but the Dickensian spirit of sharp wit and righteous indignation is missing. Instead we get shtick, silly melodrama and cheap laughs involving anachronism and self-reference, which sabotage the characters and frustrate any attempt at suspending disbelief—an odd formula for an all-ages show.
Two moral maxims flit through the script: Beneath our hats we are all the same, and there’s plenty for everyone when everyone shares. Both sentiments are worthy, but neither really emerges from the story. Another, harsher truth is illustrated here: All plays, even family-oriented ones, need an engaging plot and well-drawn characters. Lacking these basic ingredients, this show is all hat and no Dickens. (Hugh Iglarsh)
Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Boulevard, Skokie, (847)673-6300, northlight.org. $30-$89. Through January 2.