Christmas tends to bring out the businessperson in every artist. Folks who any other time of the year are working on plays about the multicultural experience, or arguing with each other about whether Clifford Odets sold out the left, turn into slavering capitalists at the thought of the beloved Christmas cash cow. Back 23 years ago, when A Contemporary Theater began its dramatized version of A Christmas Carol, the Christmas show was a fairly straightforward and traditional affair, dominated by the triple threat of Dickens, The Nutcracker, and a Christmas pageant. Since then, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, Santa, the Three Kings, and the Little Drummer Boy have all been tapped out, leaving theater companies desperate for the next Christmas story they can use to lure folks in. (I look forward to such epics as "Winky: The Story of Santa's Sleigh" and "North Pole! The Musical!")
Christmas on the Orpheum Circuit
Taproot Theater till 12/19
Wuthering! Heights! The!
Empty Space Theater till 1/3/99
There are essentially three approaches a theater can take to its Christmas show. It can go the high road, presenting a play that's either traditional (ACT's Christmas Carol and its many local variants) or noble in its sentiments, like the late lamented Group's annual Voices of Christmas. Or a company can mock all things seasonal with a satirical jab at the season, as Cabaret De Paris does with its annual Forbidden Christmas; Peggy Platt and Lisa Koch with their Ham for the Holidays revues; and Unexpected Productions with its off-the-wall comedies (which this year features a parody of TV Christmas specials called The Bogey Hogen Christmas Spectacular). Finally, a theater can produce something light and funny like a musical, preferably one with a vaguely 19th-century English theme. Hence the double helping of Shaw via the Village Theatre's My Fair Lady and the Seattle Rep's Pygmalion. Though both plays are set in 1912, this Cinderella story looks, to American audiences, like it might be going on a few doors down from Scrooge and Marley, Props.
My monthlong foray into seasonal theater began last week with Taproot Theater's Christmas on the Orpheum Circuit. To the credit of the company and playwright Sean R. Gaffney, there's at least an attempt, via the nostalgic world of vaudeville, to explore some unusual material for this show, though it still falls squarely in the high-minded "reason for the season" category. It's 1948, and one of the last remaining vaudeville houses, located in a small New Jersey town, is about to be turned into a warehouse. That is, until our hero, Charlie (Bob Borwick), tries to impress a young woman (Candace Vance) stranded with her tour group, and ends up having to improvise an entire vaudeville show using friends and family.
This is a fairly by-the-numbers "hey kids, let's put on a show" sort of evening, though there are some amusing variants, such as a breakneck version of Dickens' A Christmas Carol set to the tune of a Yuletide medley. Borwick and Vance are the strongest in the singin' and dancin' categories, and marshal the rest of the cast through their paces without ever apparently breaking a sweat. But what's missing from the evening is the payoff. The whole idea of a show "put together in a few hours" is that it shouldn't look like a show put together in a few hours, which this one occasionally does. Without the brilliant and polished song and dance numbers we expect, this show survives primarily on charm and goodwill.
So, too, does the Empty Space's revival of Wuthering! Heights! The! Musical!, a prime example of the light and silly musical category of Christmas show. Since its premiere last year at the Space, Eddie Levi Lee's tale about an amateur production in a small Southern town has, I'm told, been reworked and rewritten to take off some of the rough edges. But it's hard for me to tell what the changes have been, because whatever edges have been worked off have been replaced by new ones. This remains a rag-tag piece of silliness that succeeds by cheerfully flaunting the absurdity of its concept.
So we still have Edd Key's ridiculous songs, which include a pastiche of Wagner, a parody of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and even the traditional white gospel known as shape-note. We still have Anthony Curry, stumbling into, and sometimes chewing on, any available scenery as the degenerate Southern gentleman Beverly Trimble; Burton Curtis as the severely strange Brother Mills with his dolphin-like expressions of delight; and Joy Lee as the bossy but clear-headed playwright Cooka Pippin.
The only major change is the replacement of Lauren Weedman with Shelley Reynolds as Arlene Stoner, the girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Both women are fine actresses, but they're so wildly different in terms of their personality and charisma that the entire emphasis of the off-stage romance has shifted radically. Weedman's Arlene was resolutely defiant of her class and background, and when she made her confession of love to Brother, it was a touching moment of vulnerability that made him look like an insensitive jerk. With Reynolds, Arlene's ego is well-nigh impervious, and when she makes her play, Brother appears not insensitive but either legally blind or non-gender-compatible. None of this alters the show's good spirits or silliness, how-ever, so while there's nary a sprig of mistletoe to be seen on stage, this remains a fun seasonal rummage around the candy dish.
Next week: Revues, Musicals, and My Fourth Viewing of A Christmas Carol.