Saturday, November 24, 2018

Who's superstitious? Maybe not the new Phoenix, as it debuts its 13th annual "Very Phoenix Xmas" production

Curiosity is the mother of superstition, probably. If you believe you can protect yourself against
Momentarily sedate, eight female actors make up the "Merry Superstitious" cast.
exercising too much curiosity, you may adopt practices or sayings with the supposed supernatural power to ward off bad luck or bring on good fortune.

Phoenix Theatre grabs that bull by the horns in titling its 13th annual variety show "A Very Phoenix Xmas 13: Merry Superstitious." Many theatergoers besides me will attend the company's first version of its 13-year-old Yuletide production in its new venue with a surfeit of curiosity. How will "A Very Phoenix Xmas" look and feel and sound there without the guidance of Bryan Fonseca? (His founding artistic hand was removed from the tiller last spring; he's now steering a new theatrical ship out of a west-side harbor.)

The short answer is that the new production connects with tradition in its sometimes sharp-edged mirthfulness as well as its touches of tenderness: Tom Horan's continued assistance curating the show helps.  My curiosity was settled satisfactorily on a number of counts; the tradition continues in reasonably good shape. It flows nicely in a balanced way, the sketches and songs arranged so as to give each one maximum impact.

Still, Phoenix's long-term security may be in need of any number of helpful superstitions, in addition to more rational assurances of success. When it comes to where you grab that bull, there's always the risk suggested by the fabled Sam Goldwyn malapropism: "We got to grab the bull by the tail and look this problem squarely in the face."

Ben Asaykwee, a master of many locally staged revels, is at the helm of "Merry Superstitious." His directing style is to push cabaret-style production toward the grotesque, hedged round with emotional warmth. This makes the smartly put-together show clever about softening its punches. You get the fun of being jolted without harm, as with the padding on bumper cars. He contributes several clever songs, one of them (in the satirical "North Pole News") a parody pastiche presenting a twitchy DJ's introduction of new pop arrangements of some holiday songs everyone has grown tired of. In the ensemble songs on first hearing, some of the lyrics escaped me. Vocal harmonies tended to be warm and precise.

Speaking of escapes: One of the Asaykwee originals, a production number ending the first act,  intricately designed and vigorously brought off by the eight-woman cast, largely went over my head, it pains me to admit. It's a mash-up of plot and visual elements from "The Shining" and "It's a Wonderful Life." I've not seen either film, though I know a little about each. Those who know much more than I will get a kick out of "It's a Shining Life," judging from the response of Friday's opening-night audience.

With a stylized Nativity Scene behind them, cast opens Act 2.
The technical adroitness of the production team hit a pinnacle with "Poor Boy," using a Freddie Mercury song to range over a Nativity Scene backdrop as the cast sang ensemble and solo passages. Supplementing and sometimes replacing the original image was a kaleidoscope of abstract patterns, from full screen down to spotlighted faces. Ben Dobler's sound and projections design is pressed into extraordinary service in the Russell Theater, and throughout the show, the other designers join him in bringing much splendor it. They are Gordon Strain (scenic) Laura Glover (lighting), Courtney Frederick (costumes), and Danielle Buckel (properties).

The writing varies, arguably dipping a bit from previous productions. I missed the brilliance of Mark Harvey Levine's sketches, many of which I hope have found homes elsewhere. This year, the shortest sketch was mercifully so. A scene for three witches called "Conjuring Christmas" was a triumph of staging, costuming and cackling performance, but seemed lengthy, driving home its point well before the end. Irreverence ruled in the opening sketch depicting a spat between Mary and Joseph, but this note has been sounded several times before in Phoenix Xmases past.

Lou Harry's "Shep (or Mutton in Common)" gives away the author's fondness for puns in the subtitle. A stressed shepherd is being grilled  by a cynical investigator post-Nativity on the whereabouts of the flock between fields and stable. Rarely has the 23rd Psalm been exploited as both alibi and character witness so pertinently as the shepherd does here.

Steffi Rubin's "Christmas Unspectacular (Featuring the Tantalizing Tappers of Tremont Terrace)" signals a verbosity and love of alliteration that the sketch itself fortunately doesn't illustrate. Yes, a lot of words are used among several members of a once ambitious dance troupe at a tense reunion, but most of them sparkle. This is a well-written sketch, full of dance lingo, but authentic in ways that go beyond genuine shop talk.

Zack Neiditch's "Abby & Abbey's Best Christmas Pageant Ever" presents an amusing, research-rich take on the origins of familiar Christmas traditions through the two ebullient emcees' unfiltered middle-school imaginations. The sketch suggests that the spirit of the Indy Fringe Festival seems alive and well in the off-season.

The cast brings such sustained panache to the show's comedy and smidgen of pathos that it would be laborious to single out individual contributions. In a "Very Phoenix Xmas" first, it's an all-female lineup, comprising Frankie Bolda, Tiffanie Burnett, Jaddy Ciucci, ShawntĂ© P. Gaston, Sarah Hund, Jolene Mentink Moffatt, Phebe Taylor, and Jenni White.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

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