Monday, December 1, 2014

On, Flasher! On, Dasher! On, Donner and Blitzen!: 'A Very Phoenix Xmas' turns 9

"Flashing Through the Snow" is a title that promises more naughtiness than this version of Phoenix Theatre's annual Christmas pastiche delivers, but that's OK: The show's niceness is edgy enough.

Seen Saturday on its opening weekend, the production is loaded with fresh amounts of wit, savvy and elan both technical and performative. Holiday joy doesn't come without work, so if it's true the elaborate finale seems too effortful, that is part of the Christmas season's bounty as well. There's a fine balance of anticipation and surfeit, in other words, of the kind dependably embedded in this time of year.

It's also a time of feverish planning and plans gone awry. "Flashing Through the Snow" tries to connect with that feeling of spontaneity-bumping-up-against-organization from the open welcome to the audience on through the show. Ryan O'Shea launches into hearty greetings, checks herself as she realizes she's doing it alone, and fretfully enlists the rest of the seven-person ensemble to help her complete the introduction.

The planned awkwardness quickly yields to the polished integrity that's become a Phoenix hallmark. The awkwardness returns only at the end, in the last of a half-dozen sketches curated from submissions this year by director Bryan Fonseca and contributing writer Tom Horan.

Hoofing it: "A Very Phoenix Xmas 9" cast  plays reindeer games
The intricately clever "Les Miserabelves" (by Phoenix Xmas veteran Mark Harvey Levine) tests the mettle of the ensemble to a point perhaps beyond an audience's power to grasp. There's thoroughgoing parody of "Les Miz" in the songs and a send-up of holiday specials hung around the neck of Rudolph and his fellow reindeer. Dave Ruark pokes a vaguely Victor Hugo face through a snowman cutout and narrates the zany story in a faux-French accent. Ashley Kiefer's costumes and props gamely meet Levine's fervid imagination halfway. The note of triumph is finally secure, but with more of a nervous tremolo than useful.

Other sketches are uniformly strong, imaginative as well as better focused. Matters of piety and goodness, even with a deep structure of theology (as in the fertility-clinic encounters of Matt Hoverman's "Nativity"), are deftly handled. Anyone ever caught in voice-mail hell (don't bother to raise your hands) will be amused by Arianne Villareal's solo turn as a frustrated supplicant in Seth Freeman's "Press Pray."

"Santa Doesn't Live Here Anymore," by Patrick Gabridge, makes of the childhood
illusions surrounding the holidays a potentially lifelong barrier to facing the truth. Family life doesn't make puncturing illusions easy, a reality that Lincoln Slentz, Dave Ruark, and Carly Kincannon spin out to hilarious lengths.

Rob Johansen plays a crusty veteran of the War on Christmas carrying the battle to the secular enemy
Rob Johansen leads charge against secularized "Happy Holidays' world.
in "The Things They Merried," a pointed sketch by Eric Pfeffinger calling on the action-film skills of the entire company. The dark side of Christmas is more searchingly explored in "Rebel Without a Claus," with Ruark portraying a generic lost soul from the 1950s, pompadoured and leather-jacketed. The wayward brother of the boy who would grow up to become Santa Claus comes to a bad end.  His example turns out to prescribe the Jolly Old Elf's naughty-and-nice division of juvenile humanity every Christmas Eve. So now we know.

Fantasy imbues the song performances as well.  The seduction scenario of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is upended in a smooth performance of the evergreen song by Slentz, O'Shea, Kincannon, and Villareal. "You Can Fly" features a background chorus in a showcase for a new (to me) manifestation of Johansen's  extraordinary physical acting: solo aerial acrobatics with a long red scarf suspended from above. And Ruark's vocal solo in "Hallelujah(s)" enables the music of G.F. Handel and Leonard  Cohen (performed by the cast's female quartet) to be almost credibly linked.

Arianne Villareal is about to find out she hasn't a prayer.
For sheer offbeat spectacle, the first-act finale brings Mariel Greenlee's choreography to bear in a fool-the-eye dance to a disco version of "Carol of the Bells." Out of total darkness, five pinpoint-lighted bodies — and sometimes just their upper or lower halves — cavort ingeniously.

As relief from all the virtuosity, now and then each cast member comes forward for an informal monologue relating a personal Christmas memory. From an entertainment perspective, these vary widely. The presentation style is inconsistent, with some of the players opting for a conversational manner, others choosing to stay within an acting persona and projecting their stories.

The variety apparently reinforces the purpose of these monologues as a chance for the actors to "be themselves': I'm undecided how well it worked. Like most Christmas traditions, the show's interplay between artifice and naturalness is never a settled matter. But "Flashing Through the Snow" is topnotch entertainment poised on that boundary. It's under the mistletoe all the way, and deserves a smooch.