Saturday, November 30, 2019

Bryan Fonseca reclaims his Christmas vaudeville innovation for his new company

If you can imagine "A Very Bryan Chrystmas" as Santa Claus, you might find that what Clement Clarke Moore painted poetically for all time as a figure "chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf" has slimmed down and  become a little less jolly.

Unlike the "Very Phoenix Xmas" series that filled our stockings a dozen times at the Phoenix Theatre under Bryan Fonseca's inspired direction, the adaptation of the format that the Fonseca Theatre Company opened Friday night renders the Santa spirit as a slender, slightly clumsy fellow who distributes his gifts less lavishly and not quite so merrily.

"Last Minute Shoppers," a new work by Mark Harvey Levine, has the Magi making last-minute decisions
With support for his multicultural ambitions in theater, Fonseca has brought himself up by his bootstraps to establish operations  on the city's west side, enlisting some outstanding, loyal talent to help realize his dreams after his departure from the downtown institution he co-founded.

Some of that talent is evident in this show, and fans of the show's predecessors will be happy to see a new piece by Mark Harvey Levine and the return of Tim Brickley as music director, as well as the onstage contributions of Paul Collier Hansen, Jean Arnold, and Phebe Taylor, whose previous associations with Fonseca include other shows besides the annual Yule bash. The production team includes some old Phoenix hands as well.

"Washington in Winter": Family troubles and awful weather interfere.
That aspect of the show brings "A Very Bryan Chrystmas" within striking distance of the Phoenix Xmases of old. But the stage is more confining and there is less amplitude in the half-dozen sketches. As before, topical references are strongly underlined. Satire crackles, and sentimentality provides a reliable figgy pudding.

Eric Pfeffinger's  "In the Same Country" has two shepherds, biblically "watching over their flocks by night," differently interpreting the angelic announcement of the Savior's birth. The one played by Hansen is aggressively skeptical, alert to the possibility of social-media fake news from above, while Dorian Wilson's is more openly curious to find out what might be awaiting them in that Bethlehem stable.

But there were moments throughout the show that made the new pieces feel like works-in-progress. I'm not sure if rehearsal time was inadequate (many professionals might say, Well, it always is), but now and then the actors didn't seem quite comfortable with each other. "Washington in Winter," a playlet by Cassandra Rose of Los Angeles that serves as the staged finale, focuses on an intriguingly stubborn contemporary re-enactor of George Washington's crossing the Delaware River to surprise the Hessians on Christmas Day 1776. But he has family troubles that his determination to portray the general's brave assault on the enemy makes poignant. I liked the piece's potential to shed light on domestic Christmas woes from an oblique angle, but I think it had an unwelcome layer of awkwardness in Friday's performance.

Where applicable, the humor in some of the sketches might have come across more sharply if more confidently and spiritedly played. A test of sketch comedy expertise always has to be how quickly the cast dons each piece of gay apparel (in the old meaning) before doffing it to assume the next character in the next sketch. This skill varied over the course of the performance, from actor to actor.

Jonathan Stombaugh assisted the musical cohesiveness of the well-placed songs both vocally and instrumentally. (Some of the group's vocal harmonies needed further work, however.) Moreover, in a John P. Gallo sketch he contributed one of the show's most full-throated portrayals as the astonished victim of a satanic Christmas party ritual. Keyed to his character's desperation, the piece gained cohesive energy from the extraordinary vigor of Stombaugh's performance. The cast jelled around it, making it the sort of no-holds-barred achievement that many patrons will remember from the best of Phoenix Xmases past. Maybe by next year, even given the compactness of the FTC stage, we will be able to enjoy a "Bryan Chrystmas" in which the Santa spirit has regained its conventional girth and drollery.


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