When it comes to Christmas-related performances, actor Lee O. Smith may be the most qualified to star as the title character in the South Carolina Children’s Theatre’s production of “Santa Claus: A New Musical.” Not only has he donned the red cap and shiny boots of Kris Kringle before, but he also may just have the holiday equivalent of a hat trick.
“I’ve done what I consider the Christmas trifecta,” Smith says with a laugh. “I’ve played Frosty the Snowman. I’ve been Ebenezer Scrooge, and I’ve been Santa Claus. So Christmas is definitely my time of year.”
When it comes to Smith’s St. Nick, people might recognize the character, but if they’re expecting a collection of the same old Christmas carols in this musical, they’re in for a shock. “Santa Claus: A New Musical” features 10 original songs that favor rock ‘n’ roll far more than sedate standards – and not “Jingle Bell Rock,” either. The opening tune, “Christmas Eve,” is a dead ringer for a Green Day song.
“The part got my attention, just because I’d played him before,” says Smith, who lives in Columbia. “I thought I could qualify. But what made me want to audition were the songs. This is really great music, all original, and it has the Christmas vibe to it, but it’s very upbeat and has a lot of rock ‘n’ roll in it. I don’t know if I’ve ever done a musical with this much guitar in it before.”
The plot is a bit of a twist on the traditional Christmas story, as well. Smith’s Santa Claus has been doing his job for 1,000 years, and it’s time for him to retire. But in order to do that, he’s got to find a replacement, which is where the very reluctant Nick (played by Jonathan Kilpatrick) and his daughter, Beatrice (played by Ella Newton), come into play.
“It’s very interesting, and in a strange way it’s kind of timely,” Smith says of the story, “because everything’s getting upgraded in the 21st century. It’s time for the old Santa to retire and bring in a new Santa. And he’s looking forward to having a little time off because it’s a demanding job, even if it’s a fulfilling one. So he brings in a new recruit based on a gut feeling he has.”
But this recruit is having some trouble adjusting to his new role. “Nick’s daughter really believes in him and wants him to be the new Santa Claus, but he’s still not fully convinced that he can do the job,” Smith says. “He has to go through some trials and tribulations before he gets it together, and whether he pulls it off or not, people will just have to buy their ticket and find out.”
“This is really great music, all original, and it has the Christmas vibe to it, but it’s very upbeat and has a lot of rock ‘n’ roll in it. I don’t know if I’ve ever done a musical with this much guitar in it before.” –Lee O. Smith
Smith has been working in the Columbia Children’s Theatre for years, and he also had a long career in children’s television, playing a character called Burglar Bob on a show called “Deputy Billy & Friends” for 10 years. So he knows family entertainment when he sees it.
“I think this is a production that will be around for a long time,” he says. “They’ll have to call it something different eventually, because it’s called ‘A New Musical.’ Somewhere down the line, they’ll have to change the name.”
As Smith rides back and forth from Columbia to Greenville for rehearsals, listening to the songs and getting his lines down, he’s discovered that “Santa Claus” is a rare kid-oriented production where both parents and children can enjoy themselves.
“I don’t think it’s limited to kids at all,” he says. “I think the adults will enjoy it as much as the kids, if not more, especially the music. They’re not expecting music like this. A lot of these songs sound like the artists they like, and the songs just keep on coming. Kids will definitely love it, but parents will be pleasantly surprised, and they should give it a chance.”