“Hi, Lord, it’s Dolly — I’m back!” Make that “I’m baaack!!” Not because the little-girl-Dolly-Parton played by Alyvia Alyn Lind is issuing a threat at the start of Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors, airing Wednesday on NBC. It’s just that the kid is so darn enthusiastic, insistent, and triumphant even before she achieves any triumphs, other than continuing to wear her coat of many colors without getting beaten up by the neighborhood kids.
Lind plays a 9-year-old Parton who’s living in backwoods Tennessee in the 1950s as a sort of alternate-timeline Hamilton understudy: She’s forever talking, singing, and speaking in a singsong rhythm about her dreams of stardom and/or world conquest. She drives her father — played with that nice world-weariness that Ricky Schroder has developed in middle age — to distraction and to take a job in a faraway coal mine. It’s not just to get away from Dolly and her seven (Eight? Maybe a ninth squalling in the corner?) siblings crammed into their tumbledown cabin. He wants to earn money to buy his wife, played by singer Jennifer Nettles, the wedding ring he’s long owed her.
Like last year’s Coat of Many Colors, the new production is based on the facts of Parton’s life and features the singer at the beginning and end, singing beautifully against a Dollywood backdrop. Unlike the previous production, it also features Parton in a supporting role, as a woman whom little-Dolly finds amazingly glamorous in her fancy clothes, driving a red Thunderbird. We at home recognize this character as — How shall I put it in the context of this family entertainment? — a painted lady, a woman of the night.
Parton has said that such a figure did indeed thrill her as a youth: There weren’t too many style icons to worship in the Great Smoky Mountains more than half a century ago, so she took her inspiration where she found it. Little-Dolly is ecstatic when Trollop-Dolly gives her a $20 bill, more money than the tyke has ever seen. The rest of the town — particularly Corla Bass, the busybody shopkeeper played by Parton’s real-life sister Stella — views Trollop-Dolly with ill-disguised contempt, not the most Christian of attitudes.
And, to be sure, Christian attitude is the backbone of the story told here. The two-hour production is framed around school rehearsals of a Nativity play (Dolly prays to God that she’ll be cast as Mary, and the Big Guy comes through for her) and then a series of tests that would strain lesser folks’ faith. The Partons endure a terrible blizzard, a dangerous coal-mining accident, and Gerald McRaney as Dolly’s Bible-thumping grandfather. They emerge from all these travails stronger than ever. Little-Dolly even encounters her first indoor toilet, which she mistakes for a “private foot washer.”
On the one hand, Christmas of Many Colors has a lot of corny dialogue, like “My dreams mean something!” and “I got me a big dream, Uncle Billy!” On the other hand, my favorite character, Dolly’s red-haired, emo-before-her-time friend Judy (Hannah Nordberg) does get to call a bug-eating kid named Rudy “a big galoot,” a word I think ought to be revived.
The entire enterprise is sentimental and predictable, which goes without saying. What pulls it all together is what pulls together everything Dolly Parton touches: heartfelt emotion, un-ironic portrayals of modest sincerity (Nettles and Schroder are particularly effective), and a gift for turning treacle into musical gold.
Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors airs Wednesday night at 9 p.m. on NBC.