Pine Soul

Christmas sets stage for mixed bag of holiday fare-to-middling

Among my more annoying flaws, friends tell me, is an unnatural affection for Christmas. I'm one of those fellows who spends the day after Thanksgiving searching for the perfect spruce pine. My holiday shopping is completed long before Halloween, and I begin playing my huge collection of Christmas records sometime in September.

My annual traditions include attending every one of our local Christmas pageants -- partly out of professional obligation, but mostly hoping to find a holiday entertainment that doesn't make me want to convert to Judaism. This year, I witnessed a Christmas-themed commercial for writer Robert Fulghum, an annual Equity production of A Christmas Carol, and a community theater show about an annual Equity production of A Christmas Carol.

I tried not to let a violent head cold color my opinion of these programs, but not even glowing health would have allowed me to love Phoenix Theatre's production of Uh-Oh, Here Comes Christmas. Despite my maudlin affection for the holidays, I loathe cheap Christmas sentiment. The ooky sweetness oozing from Fulghum's hyper Hallmark card overpowered the pleasant performances of some of my favorite local actors. I ended up feeling sorry for them, having to appear in dreck at Christmastime.

Rough sledding: The cast of Uh-Oh, Here Comes Christmas.
Rough sledding: The cast of Uh-Oh, Here Comes Christmas.

The show is based on 16 of the author's artless essays, all of them in the syrupy tradition of his best-selling All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Some of the pieces here have nothing to do with Christmas -- like "The Good Stuff," lifted from one of Fulghum's more annoying collections, about a man whose daughter trusts him with her prized possessions. Several stories are tied by a thread to a holiday theme, like "The Refrigerator," a paean to leftovers.

I didn't loathe every minute of this sticky-sweet sideshow. I enjoyed a short bit about a poinsettia plant, until it grew into a series of gags, each less funny than the one before. And I found myself laughing in spite of myself at "Confessions," in which a family reminiscence becomes an amusing list of past transgressions. And Rusty Ferracane singing "Spring," a New Agey carol, was a pleasant surprise.

Mostly, though, these rewarding moments (and consistently poised performances from all five cast members) were overpowered by Fulghum's mushy take on everyday situations. The curtain finally rang down, but not before a tepid audience sing-along (to "Silent Night," a difficult piece even for an accomplished singer) that was meant to warm hearts but succeeding only in raising blood-sugar counts.

I fared better the following week when, armed with throat lozenges and Kleenex, I attended the eighth annual production of Actors Theatre of Phoenix's A Christmas Carol. I genuinely enjoyed the show this year, though everyone I mentioned this to -- a colleague, his fiancé, my regular theater companion -- assured me that I was mistaken, that I couldn't possibly have liked what they saw.

Maybe it was the cold medication I'd chugged before curtain, but I had a blast. Things certainly started out badly enough: The opening number, set in contemporary London, is a stinker (saved, on opening night, by Renee Morgan Brooks' wig, which flew off while she belted a carol). But almost everything I saw and heard after that -- certainly Gerald Burgess' performance as Scrooge -- was delightful. Robyn Ferracane was in fine voice; Michelle Gardner (as a mourner paid to weep at Scrooge's funeral) trotted out her usual expert comic timing; and Patti Suarez, Mark De Michele and Ken Love made marvelous ghosts. The special effects continue to improve each year, as does Michael Grady and Matthew Wiener's adaptation, stuffed as a Christmas goose with one-liners and zany asides.

My holiday luck didn't hold. The folks at Tempe Little Theatre made such a big deal about the pre-show entertainment that opened their Inspecting Carolthat I made sure I got to the theater long before curtain. I might as well have dawdled: The "pre-show" featured a knot of off-key carolers and a couple of cast members wandering around, pretending to measure stuff with a retractable yardstick.

Inspecting Carol is sort of a cross between Noises Off and Waiting for Guffman, without any of the fun. The story concerns a professional theater troupe whose annual production of A Christmas Carol is threatened by, among other things, bad acting. I confess: I enjoyed watching flat performances by actors who were playing people who can't act. The rest of my pleasure wasn't as easy to come by: The script looks for laughs with suppository jokes and inexplicable lines like "I'm Lithuanian, I have a lot of anger!" Hee hee.

I liked Kurt Johnson's performance as a wacky, would-be thespian -- particularly his spectacularly terrible audition scene -- but not enough to stay for the second act. I confess: I fled at intermission, in search of analgesics and escape from mediocre theater. On my way to the parking lot, I stopped to scribble a note to myself: "Next year: Xmas Carol OK, Echinacea early, no other Christmas plays."

Phoenix Theatre's Uh-Oh, Here Comes Christmas continues through Sunday, December 19, at 100 East McDowell. Actors Theatre of Phoenix's A Christmas Carol continues through Thursday, December 23, at the Herberger Theatre Center, 222 East Monroe; Tempe Little Theatre's Inspecting Carol continues through Sunday, December 19, at Tempe Performing Arts Center, 132 East Sixth Street in Tempe.

 
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