A Holly, Folly Christmas

Lest I be mistaken for a holiday-hating Scrooge, I'll open by mentioning that I'm writing this theater review surrounded by Christmas trees -- three of them, all mine, and each trimmed to sagging by myself and my beloved, while we drank eggnog and ate wreath-shaped cookies and listened to The Steve and Eydie Christmas Album.

I'm bursting with Christmas spirit, and nothing can shake my jolly mood, not even An American Holiday, Phoenix Theatre's latest paean to mediocrity. Normally one has to attend a preschool pageant to find entertainment of this caliber. But, perhaps in the spirit of giving, our oldest theater company has shoveled everything you ever hated about your nephew's kindergarten Christmas play into one steaming pile, and tied it up with a big red-white-and-blue ribbon. The only thing more offensive than this show's content and execution is its producers' gall in exploiting the country's current patriotic furor by fusing a stars-and-stripes theme onto a tacky Christmas show.

To refer to this holiday hogwash as formulaic is to heap it with praise. With the exception of a kick line, An American Holiday contains every cheap-jack musical theater cliché ever invented. Within minutes, this mirthless tune fest lapses into audience-participation gags that are meant to divert our attention from the stillborn story and the endless string of some of the all-time worst Christmas tunes ever composed. "I'm Getting Nuttin' for Christmas," indeed.

A long list of theater folk spent what appears to be several hours writing and rehearsing this Yuletide yawner, which begs us to believe that we're watching a live television broadcast from 1960. Bernice and Sheldon Starr are an ersatz Ozzie and Harriet who have just been informed that if the network doesn't like their Christmas special, their popular sitcom will be canceled. If this were real life, An American Holiday would have gotten the Starrs banned from the airwaves forever.

The cast -- several of them old enough to know better -- is made to mouth cheesy one-liners and pitch hoary sight gags better left to the imagination. Stephen Goodfriend, a generally affable performer, must have had the flu the night I was there; or maybe he was just embarrassed to have to sing songs with Megan Morgan, who, assigned the role of a sexy starlet à la Joey Heatherton, comes off more like Joey Bishop.

Only half the players are to be pitied. Not even a heap of Christmas claptrap can dim the cheerful stage presence of lovely Laura Freeman, who's saddled with dimwitted bits lifted wholesale from I Love Lucy reruns. Young Nick Cartell sings beautifully, and Jerry Wayne Harkey plays marvelously for two full hours, but neither could keep my mind from wandering during the second act.

Who, I wondered, is Phoenix Theatre hoping to please with this sanctimonious pitch for patriotism? Certainly no one with any taste or common sense. In the end, An American Holiday is merely more proof that Phoenix Theatre has no faith that its audience knows rubbish when it sees it. This silly snow job's only other purpose, besides upsetting our stomachs, might be as a replacement for a lump of coal in the stocking of someone you loathe.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela