Saturday, December 3, 2016

Theatre on the Square has a "naughty" yuletide show to go with its "nice" one

No American growing up with what used to be called the commercialization of Christmas can fail to be familiar with holiday stress. That's the aspect Theatre on the Square focuses upon in "A Christmas Survival Guide," which just opened on the Mass Ave theater's Stage Two.

Apart from brief allusions to a few traditional carols, the show doesn't touch on any particular attitude to the holiday's religious meaning. TOTS flags it as "naughty" not because it ever tiptoes up to the edge of sacrilege, but rather for some slight bawdiness and a smattering of four-letter words, none of which is "yule."

Levi Burke accompanies Eric Brockett in his  Mrs. Claus persona.
As seen Friday night, the blend of song and dance and a notable comic sketch proceeded smoothly, anchored to a busy tapestry of piano accompaniment and comic participation by music director Levi Burke, plus voice-over excerpts from the putative self-help book of the title, full of the kind of fatuous or obvious advice common to its genre.

A woman shares her Christmas woes with a couple of companions, whose nature won't be revealed here, in a hilarious sketch fully exploiting the madcap talents of the show's other male participants, Josiah McCuistion and Eric Brockett. Let's just say that three different perspectives on what provides Christmas joy are put forward — with considerable clashing.

There's an extended suite of songs by the effervescent McCruistion expressing Santa pride as the consummation of elfin dreams. Then he's joined by cast members Gabby Niehaus, Shauna Smith, and Anna Lee less than twenty feet from stardom as backup singers, helping Santa strut his stuff soulfully as perpetual master of the revels.
The "Survival Guide" girl group: Gabby Niehaus, Shauna Smith, and Anna Lee.

In the middle is a segment presenting one of the women as a particularly needy adult. That points to a perennial Christmas down side — grownups have no Santa to sugarcoat the season for them. That's why some have to turn for comfort to actual sugar, a fact that comes out in a lively song parody called "The Twelve Steps of Christmas."

Tireless at the keyboard, Burke supplements the gang of five, who are onstage almost continuously. His piano playing is nimble and spirited, with some slapdash moments that can be partly excused by his adoption of the manic personality he shares with the cast. Director Lori Raffel had the further inspiration of having the stage manager, Nikki Sayer, interact with the main quintet in ways that involve more than the need to move furniture and props into and out of place.

There's also a brilliant torch song for Mrs. Claus performed by Brockett and a clever role-reversal performance of what's called here "the date-rape song" — "Baby, It's Cold Outside," with the girl an insistent seductress and the guy protesting that he really can't stay. There are other lively tweaks of convention: The bouncy enthusiasm for old-fashioned dashing through the snow that goes with "Sleigh Ride" deliberately runs off track. Similarly, the ensemble's "Silver Bells" makes it clear that urban Christmases in the cell-phone era aren't quite the sparkling winter idyll the song suggests.

Chapter by outrageous chapter, the guide proceeds boisterously and with well-knit variety for 90 minutes without intermission.  Late in the show Friday, there were oddities of pacing and texture that made a few numbers feel like finales that turned out not to be. The actual finale, a reprise of "The Man With the Bag" (choreographed by Jan Jamison) didn't have the bang-up confidence and pizazz that reprises need to have to justify their one-more-time placement.

Still, there's every chance that "The Christmas Survival Guide" will leave most audiences' rosy cheeks with deepened laugh lines between now and Dec. 23.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]