Thursday, November 26, 2015

X marks the spot: For the tenth time, Phoenix Theatre digs for yuletide treasure

The Phoenix Theatre has used the tried-and-true total of ten to wax lightly nostalgic in "A Very Phoenix Xmas X."

Gayle Steigerwald ornaments the show.
A decade ago, its holiday variety show with a bit of an edge debuted at 749 North Park Avenue. As narrator Gayle Steigerwald pointed out at the new production's preview Wednesday, what began life as a jibe at Christmas-season traditions has itself become a Christmas-season tradition.

Just as consumers supplement shopping lists with goodies for themselves, "Phoenix Xmas X" is a blend of self-tribute and genuine holiday spirit. The audience is adequately warned by the show's subtitle (modestly clad in lower case): "oh come, let us adore us."

Steigerwald's narration reminisces, and there's no more fitting Phoenix stalwart to do so. Her repeat appearances, which serve to smooth the way between set changes, include fanciful costumes celebrating the season's decorative mania and her previous roles in the production.

Santa's ho-ho-ho encounters girl's WTF.
In this anthology of freshly minted sketches, Steigerwald has one starring role. In "Ms. Claus," she's an applicant for the vacant post of Santa Claus after a scandal has forced the previous occupant's early retirement. It's an amusing plea on behalf of gender equality in the workplace, a cause fueled here by a little well-placed bribery. A panel played by Paul Collier Hansen, Eric J. Olson and Lincoln Slentz scrutinizes her application — all in seasonally official garb and burdened with ridiculous beards.

Santa Claus stereotyping also gets some ribbing in "Jolly Saint Dick," with Hansen making the customary flue drop at the home of a snarky prepubescent girl (Olivia Huntley). The sketch makes a little too much of the Jolly Old Elf losing his persona under provocation and going on a foul-mouthed rant, but there's a sweet message underlying it all.

The toxic boss that Santa has long been in much Christmas satire (dating back at least to S.J. Perelman's "Waiting for Santy" (1936)) is turned into a Scrooge-like present-day oppressor in a caustic song by Lizz Leiser. It features one of Tim Brickley's apt instrumental tracks accompanying the ensemble. Apparently, audience members will be filling the ugly-boss role as one did Wednesday, working from cue cards and saying ungracious things between employee eruptions.

The energy, wit and rapid pace of a couple of duo sketches were among the show's high points. In
Sara Riemen gets a surprise call in "Regifting."
"Regifting," Scot Greenwell and Sara Riemen play an adult brother and sister anxiously figuring out how to counter an impending visit from a friend they're certain will embarrass them in the gift department. The prospective hosts go  frantic trying to one-up Peggy without making the mistake of boomerang regifting.

Greenwell was also marvelous fully decked out as a talking Christmas tree in dialogue with its Jewish owner (Olson) in "Oh, Tannenbaum," a brilliant contribution from the dependable "Very Phoenix Xmas" writer Mark Harvey Levine, a noted specialist in short plays.

The annual silly season is combined with the current (and relentless) political silly season  — oh, how they deserve each other! — in "Commandeer in Chief." It entails elaborate mockery of the current presidential candidates in a debate moderated by Riemen, who is nearly a dead ringer for Rachel Maddow. Everyone else is cast as pawing, prancing, snorting reindeer. In the lengthy, full-cast sketch, Rob Johansen lets his gift for travesty rip, with the ensemble spiritedly managed by director Bryan Fonseca.

"Oh, Tannenbaum," by the way, segues into a finely honed ensemble chorus in Hebrew (with a projected English translation) seriously embracing the seasonal celebration of Hanukkah.

Eric J. Olson tries to process a talking tree.
Clever faceless costumes, technical adroitness, pantomime (by Johansen, Riemen, and Lincoln Slentz),  Mariel Greenlee's choreography and prerecorded dialogue by Tom Horan made enchanting work of "Shiny New Toy," whose title object shifts among the variety of soundtracks available this time of year. The technological frontiers of the holiday were further explored with a stunning visual punch line in "Putting Away the Decorations," with Johansen and Slentz as an apparent father and son.

Technology enables the kind of musical saturation that will wear just about everyone down over the next few weeks. It is the object of some spoofing — well brought off by Johansen, Riemen and guest vocalist Deb Mullins — in "Miracle on 34th Street vs. Exile on Main St.," a sketch with a somewhat belabored premise to the effect that even a rock nightclub can't help being infected by hackneyed Christmas songs. The parody elements were largely lost on me, hopelessly nonconversant with rock as I am.

The Phoenix players, though not uniformly the best lot of the past decade, sound and look committed to the material from start to finish. Through Dec. 20, you can follow them in merry measure while they tell of yuletide treasure.

And of course you can add your own fa-la-la-la-las along the way and in retrospect. Here are mine from last year and the year before. "A Very Phoenix Xmas X" is a good way to escape the fa-la-la-la-blahs that threaten to overtake us all as the season grinds on.