Saturday, November 25, 2017

Funnier by the dozen?: Phoenix Theatre adds to its 'Xmas' legacy with the final Park Avenue installment

This is an era of disbelief and unbelief, much of it political. A certain Twitter user can't be believed any more in 280 characters
Paul Collier Hansen's Santa casts a skeptical look.
than he could in 140. Tax reform that is purported to help ordinary people but glaringly favors corporations and the very rich ratchets up the general skepticism.

But the difficulty of holding onto something enduring is part of the age-old Christmas brand, so the holiday fits right in. The challenge extends from "the reason for the season" that's often thrown in our faces right through the values that are wrapped up in gift-giving — a legacy aimed at our wallets as much as our hearts.

So it's little wonder that "A Very Phoenix Xmas," the Phoenix Theatre comedy-variety show that just entered its 12th season, puts a lot of the fun it stirs up squarely on the problem of whom and what to believe in. To start with, there's the inevitable encounter with the illusions of childhood about Santa Claus and how to keep them intact at all costs.

That pops up early in "Up to Snow Good," directed and curated by Bryan Fonseca and Thomas Horan. It's virtually certain that when a married couple connive at canoodling on Christmas Eve, believing their young daughter to be asleep, they will be totally unnerved by something extraordinary.

Here it's the crashing descent of Santa down their chimney, instantly limp and comatose. The sketch is rich in physical comedy as the couple try to animate the elfin corpse after their curious daughter rushes in from her bedroom. The amazingly supple Rob Johansen sustains a believably limp Kris Kringle while the parents wrestle with how to dispose of the body — just as parents have from time immemorial struggled with how to dispose gracefully of the legend.

The sketch draws a lot of its energy from the parents' desperation to spare the child the horror of realizing her globe-trotting benefactor may be out of commission now and for Christmases yet to come. Physical comedy is quite prominent in "Up to Snow Good," as is a variety of choreography designed by Mariel Greenlee. As usual, Greenlee adjusts her ideas to the varied dance skills of the Phoenix Xmas cast to show them off well.  The only number that puzzled me was the unconventional pas de deux set to "I'll Be Home for Christmas" — flowing when subject to shadowy illumination, static when fully lit in front of a white backdrop. I infer that the words that follow the title — "if only in my dreams" — are being realized to illustrate the contrast between really being home for Christmas and only dreaming about it.

Reconciling being in a setting you love versus just imagining it is just another way of posing the credibility problem that the holidays push to the forefront. "Up to Snow Good" uses as framework for the sketches a prime milieu for skepticism: the usefulness of higher education when judged against the hype that surrounds it. In this case, it's the University of the North Pole, touted, with sometimes transparent falsity, in a series of monologues interspersed throughout. The monologues are mostly clever and delivered with spirit, but I wonder if this setting needed a sketch of its own to launch the production and tie everything together more substantially.

Shermy (Nathan Robbins)  broods on his marginalization as a classic comic strip's only Jewish character.
Several sketches have been revived from previous Very Phoenix Xmas shows, including the final outburst of raucous comedy, "The Things They Merried," Eric Pfeffinger's representation of the "war on Christmas," with Johansen as a kind of alt-right militarist leading the charge against the largely secular retail behemoth. The rapid-fire exchange of platitudes and insults is vigorously staged with simulated combat niftily sustained until it reaches a conclusion worthy of being recounted in heroic terms by the Christmas-touting militiaman to his grandson.

Other revivals worth seeing again involved technical triumphs, such as the large puppets representing Nativity figures for the song "Don't Eat the Baby." The scene gives audiences the ultimate unstable stable behind the Bethlehem inn, and goes as far in the direction of irreverence as anything in "Up to Snow Good." Maybe Fonseca's conception of mashing up two familiar Hallelujahs, Leonard Cohen's and G.F. Handel's, justifies its place largely for the sake of balance.

Mark Harvey Levine has over the years has represented the summit of the show's comical charm. This time he reappears as the  writer of the new "Requiem for Shermy," a tribute to a briefly used and early discontinued "Peanuts" character, and the reprise of a brilliant parody of "Les Miz" songs. That's set predictably amid discontent and turbulence among the elves and reindeer and titled "Les Miserabelves," a rambunctious sketch that rousingly ends the first act.

Besides Johansen, the fit and effervescent cast includes Jean Arnold, Paul Collier Hansen, Andrea Heiden, Carlos Medina Maldonado, Devan Mathias, Gail Payne, and Nathan Robbins.

As many people try to keep their cynicism at bay, "Up to Snow Good" in one sketch locates that pervasive feeling at its source: the Twitterstorms of the current occupant of the Oval Office. "'Twas the Tweet Before Christmas," by Michael Hosp and Jeffrey Martin, indicates what we can continue to expect as the tweets of resentment, revenge and meanspiritedness accumulate, subject to "fake-news" analysis and questions clumsily batted away by the administration's time-servers
and sycophants.

Sadly, there are more than chestnuts roasting on an open fire this season; the truth is burning up as well. "Up to Snow Good" will allow you to feel the warmth generated by that fire more positively, even if some of your cherished beliefs get scorched.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]