Dolly Parton is back on Netflix with a new holiday special, Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square. The country music legend teamed up with legendary choreographer and director Debbie Allen for this all-star musical. We know Dolly can do no wrong, so the real question is: how right is Christmas on the Square?
The Gist: Music and lyrics by Dolly Parton. Directed by Debbie Allen. Do you really need more of a description than that? In case you’re not already sold, here are a few more details: Christine Baranski stars as Regina, a cruel businesswoman who’s inherited the town of Fullerville after the recent passing of her father. She’s ready to be rid of the whole town, and she does not care that she’s delivering eviction notices to an entire town just a few days before Christmas! The Cheetah Mall conglomerate has its eyes on Fullerville, and Regina wants to get that mega-corp exactly what they want for Christmas.
Jenifer Lewis plays a beautician/former mayor (read that again!) and she’s the friend who knew Regina when. Treat Williams plays Carl, the general store owner who broke Regina’s heart way back in high school. Josh Segarra (Arrow) plays Pastor Christian, and Dolly Parton productions mainstay Mary Lane Haskell plays his wife Jenna. Together, the town hopes they can come up with something to make Regina change her mind—and they have the good Lord on their side.
That’s because Dolly Parton has a big part to play in this musical as a glitzy Heavenly agent, an angel sent to grant one very particular Christmas wish and help change Regina for the better. Dolly Parton playing an angel on Earth? Y’know, it’s not a stretch!
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: For so many people, Christmas is a time for musicals. There are the parade-stopping numbers performed in front of Macy’s, local productions of A Christmas Carol or Elf, and the extravagant, sometimes disastrous spectacles that air on the major networks at this time of year. But thanks to COVID, this season looks to be lacking in musicality—and that’s where Christmas on the Square comes spinning in to fill the void. This is a musical with a capital M-U-S-I-C-A-L. There is a lot of singing, a lot of dancing, a lot of emoting, a lot of twirling, and it’s all done in, around, through, and on a giant set that is clearly a soundstage (but not in an embarrassing, low-budget way). This is one of those splashy network musicals done right—meaning it’s not done live and there’s no chance of someone tripping over a camera on-air.
Performance Worth Watching: I’d be remiss if I didn’t shout out Treat Williams’ luxurious hair, because that performance has been going strong for decades. Between this and Hallmark’s The Christmas House, we’re having a very Treaty Christmas—and I am fine with that!
But seriously (although my appreciation for Treat Williams’ mane is serious), the standout in this cast of the heaviest of hitters is Selah Kimbro Jones. She plays Violet, a wise beyond her very few years kid who knows all about the ins and outs of life because she was raised in the back of a bar with access to the internet. Violet not only unknowingly helps get Regina together, she draws out a performance from the consistently, unflappably spectacular Christine Baranski that is light years above what you’d expect to see in a Netflix original Christmas musical.
Also, a shout out to Jeanine Mason, who plays Regina’s frazzled personal assistant Felicity. It has gotta be intimidating to try to get laughs when you’re constantly sharing scenes with masters like Baranski and Parton, and Mason delivers.
Memorable Dialogue: “Grief is love with nowhere to go.” If that’s not the exact kinda line you want from a Dolly Parton Christmas special, I dunno what is.
A Holiday Tradition: If Fullerville has annual traditions, we don’t get to see them. That’s probably because they’re too busy trying to not lose their homes and businesses on Christmas!
Does the Title Make Any Sense?: Of course it does. Dolly’s not gonna steer us wrong with some vague, generic title! This is Christmas and it’s on the town square!
Our Take: If ever there was a Christmas special more tailored to a very specific kind of viewer, I can’t think of it. From minute one of Christmas on the Square, you know this movie is going to deliver exactly what you want, no matter what’s caused you to hit “play” on Netflix. If you’re coming for Jenifer Lewis, you’re gonna see her vogue, praise, and read Christine Baranski down. If you’re coming for Baranski, you’re gonna see her mercilessly tell common folk where to go on Christmas. If you’re coming for Treat Williams, well, he’s there and he’s as handsome as ever(wood). And if you’re coming for Dolly Parton, then get ready for a show!
This isn’t like Dolly Parton’s previous forays into television, where she’s acted mostly as a producer/host/inspiration/guiding light/reason for being. She’s all that in Christmas on the Square, and she’s also a character that is in the movie throughout! There’s so much Dolly in this! Homeless Dolly, mischievous Dolly, ballet instructor Dolly, fits-in-a-cup-holder Dolly, cloudy Dolly—it’s all Dolly nearly all the time in this musical, and that is how it should be.
But even when Dolly’s not on screen, Christmas on the Square is so infused with Dolly’s hardscrabble, hopeful vibe that you never forget that this is a Parton production. The entire story is as subtle as a wrecking ball, and the reveals and turns that come during the home stretch are the kinda gut punches you expect if you know Dolly’s discography. But we wouldn’t want a story from Dolly Parton—whose angel character is clad in sparkling white rhinestones from head to toe—to be subdued. You want the big swings, the tears, the joyful noise—and that makes Christmas on the Square an experience.
But while the story is the same one you’ve already seen a hundred times on the Hallmark channel this year, it stands out because of the performances. What else would you expect from Parton, Baranski, Lewis, and Williams?! This is a cast of veterans who don’t know how to commit less than 110%. Yeah, the characters are thin, but their performances are thick with dignity and conviction.
I honestly don’t know what else to say! If you come to Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square hoping to get exactly what you want from your favorite performers and some ol’ fashioned musical magic from Debbie Allen, you’re not gonna be disappointed.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square is the down home musical moment we’ve been missing this holiday season.
Stream It or Skip It: ‘Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square’ on Netflix Is Here to Save Christmas The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ Decider.