According to our Commander-in-Chief, there's currently a War on Christmas. If that's true, somebody should have warned Central Florida's stages, because this season's overflowing slate of Christmas shows must make them all sitting ducks for attack. As a secular Jew, I did my patriotic duty and attended a few local Xmas extravaganzas, prepared to fend off any atheist assailants or anti-Santa Satanists. Alas, they never arrived; I wasn't even held hostage and forced to say "Happy Holidays." But least I can report that it's still safe to leave your homes and enjoy these Yuletide entertainments.
It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play
It's funny how some holiday traditions age gracefully with annual repetition, while other ferment like warm eggnog. I'll never tire of watching A Charlie Brown Christmas, but A Christmas Story is so overexposed that the idea of Fox's live remake makes me want to shoot my eye out. Likewise, It's a Wonderful Life is best remembered by everyone of a certain age as the tearjerker you watched on TV every single winter, whether you liked it or not. Happily, Orlando Shakespeare Theater has shaken and stirred this overly familiar story into a festive cocktail of old-timey radio comedy, without losing an ounce of its emotional punch.
Live radio versions of this Frank Capra chestnut date back to 1947, and Joe Landry's adaptation evokes that era with references to Lux Soap, Walter Winchell and the end of World War II, as the "studio audience" applauds on cue. Under the uptempo direction of Suzanne O'Donnell, this charming cast re-creates every element of a vintage broadcast, from the stage manager (Isiah Columbus) and Foley sound-effect artist (Tyler Tanner) down to the popcorn girls (Helena Whittaker, Alexis Harter).
Five first-rate actors actors fill out the vocal cast. David Edwards plays the villainous banker, Mr. Potter, and provides mellifluous narration; Natalie Cordone is vivacious as Violet, the town vixen; Sarah French gives Mary, the Donna Reed role, an apple-pie-sweet surface with unexpected spine underneath; Brandon Roberts brings his born-for-vaudeville comedic skills to Clarence the Angel; and Duke Lafoon, who gently nods at Jimmy Stewart's signature stutter without slipping into imitation, isn't afraid to occasionally expose George Bailey's inner SOB. Landry's script unfortunately exacerbates the original screenplay's structural flaws, with the key "what if you had never lived?" sequence arriving late in the second act. But even hardened Bedford Falls haters will be hard-pressed to come away from this show with dry eyes.
Beach Blanket Bongo and Nick's Last Christmas
If Shakes' offering was as shiny and polished as a high-dollar Hallmark ornament, the double header of holiday-themed shows I experienced a few nights later at Dangerous Theatre Sanford were more like homemade decorations crafted from dirty magazines. But if you're burnt out on wholesome tidings of comfort and joy, there's something refreshing about visiting a venue where the owner, Winnie Wenglewick, kicks off her curtain speech by cursing her contractor and telling the audience to shut up.
First up was Beach Blanket Bongo, created by first-time writer-director John McDonald. McDonald cast himself as the appropriately named "Pretentious Poet," through whose acid-soaked memories we witness a surreal 1960s surf flick. Frankie (Trey Taylor) and Paul (Alexis Collazo) are the kings of the beach. Boy-crazy Connie (Katie Masterson) and her virginal cousin Annette (Michelle Papaycik, alternating with Theresa Hanson) claim them as their summer flings, but the guys are more interested in waxing their boards until a pot-addled guru (David Martin) and his pill-filled pal (Julie Gottfried) push them into a menage à quatre.
The second feature of the evening was Nick's Last Christmas, a new black comedy written by Terry Giannoutsos, Krysti Payne and Paul Castaneda. Santa (Greg Cartwright) is disillusioned with his shrinking "nice" list, so he hands his red hat over to Salvatore (John Hamilton Rice), a sleazy image consultant whose obscene ideas for upgrading North Pole operations enrage Mrs. Claus (Logan Creasman) and her sexually harassed head elf (Carolyn Ducker).
While neither of these productions were what I'd conventionally consider "high quality," thanks to amateurish production values and awkward pacing, I'm not handing them lumps of coal. There's an Ed Wood-ian gonzo goofiness to Beach Blanket Bongo – with parody songs, Laugh-In gags, and even fire-eating flung into the variety-show soup – until the finale takes a sharp detour into dark melodrama. And Nick's Last Christmas has some smart, topical humor buried beneath Mark J. Richman's sluggish direction. Both productions also boast fine female performances; Papaycik has precociously perky down pat, and Ducker and Creasman have a way with cutting quips.
Mostly, I admire these creators' indifference to Christmas convention, and ambition in making their voices heard this season. So whether you like your holiday sweetly sentimental and smartly wrapped, or cynically snarky and rough around the edges, there's a seat for you.