Netflix’s original musical is perhaps a bit too earnest, but is a balm for a bleak & lonely holiday season.
Everything about Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square feels like community theater. The amounts of sincerity and sweetness are (sometimes nauseatingly) off the charts. But while the limits of the budget may be visible, it’s a quaint little project with a big heart. You feel warmly welcomed into a bonded community, which may be needed more than ever as we prepare for a holiday season isolated from loved ones.
Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square feels like the television specials of yore in the way it’s staged and pieces together tired and true cliches to tell a classic American tale, but with that special Dolly wink. The drama all begins because wealthy landlord Regina Fuller (Christine Baranski) has decided Christmas Eve is the best time to evict her entire hometown. Everyone’s Got! To! Go! Ex-flame and antique store owner Carl Pellam (Treat Williams) especially has to go. Best friend and town hairdresser Margeline (Jenifer Lewis, pronounced Jeniferlewis) must pack up. Even the puppies get served a notice!
To fight this injustice, Pastor Christian (Josh Segarra) and his wife Jenna (Mary Lane Haskell), band the town together to organize against Regina and her plans to raze the town to build a “Cheetah Mall.” ‘Cheat-em-all.’ Get it? Wink, wink. She’s such a wicked capitalist, even her puns are dirty.
But something vague has shown up on Regina’s CAT scan. That’s when a heavenly angel (Dolly Parton, obviously) appears to intervene. She urges angel-in-training Felicity (Jeanine Mason) who’s been posing as Regina’s assistant to step up her game and change Regina’s heart quickly before she dies. Hopefully, once they change her heart, they can “get her heart to change her mind.”
While the limits of the budget may be visible, it’s a quaint little project with a big heart.
Those kind of endearing platitudes make up the majority of the book and score for Dolly Parton’s Christmas operetta. Filled with her folkish turns of phrase like “small towns have long memories,” Square very much shows off the sparkling brilliance of Parton’s songwriting and storytelling. She can have bouncy and witty lyrics that also add character and emotional depth. And then it’s time for the ballads, you suddenly find yourself extremely moved, crying into your review notes midafternoon on a Wednesday six weeks before Christmas.
And this is in no small part thanks to Christine Baranski. Finally she is put front and center of a musical spectacle where she can show off all her ranges. Her early lyrics about smiting the town she left for good are bitchy in the best kind of way. But it’s the emotional turn all Scrooges go through that she truly nails. Since Square is a folktale of sorts, there isn’t always a detailed connection between plot points, but Baranski is able to shade in these details with the powerful way she emotes through her skilled singing.
Director and choreographer Debbie Allen has everything expertly timed. She has cameras and dancers whirling about in such an intentional way that it moves the soundstagey vibes beyond schlock into something remarkably self aware. Her lens brings us in on the joke. Square is supposed to feel noticeably indoors like a network TV soundstage special directly descended from the 1950s and 60s down to recent tentpoles like the Whitney & Brandy Cinderella. Sure, it’s cheesy and often it’s cloyingly sweet, but it knows what it is.
Since Allen is director/choreographer, she is able to seamlessly integrate a diverse array of dance styles from ballet to voguing so as to match the eclectic mix of musical genres in Parton’s score which itself runs from pop hit to gospel to folk ballad. It all feels like a single point of view because music, dance, and camera move together as one.
These technical achievements in seamlessness help to underscore that unity is the film’s biggest theme. It has a rainbow supporting cast who are all clearly having the time of their lives, led by Dame Lewis, Mother of Black Hollywood, who hits elbows and notes as fiercely as anyone. Every size, preference, color, and creed is represented and co-exist peacefully in this staging of Americana. And just like how the musical styles come together and flow as one work, the community crosses racial, gender, and religious lines in their unified cause against Regina.
This is Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square after all. Parton Populism is in full swing in this tale of “haves and have nots.” Together with Debbie Allen, Parton has gift-wrapped in tinsel a refreshing reminder for us that the secret to Christmas kindness is class solidarity.