Saturday, December 7, 2019

Story line is imported into 'A Very Phoenix Xmas," as a venerable tradition of comedy and song continues

Let me back into this review of "Winston's Big Day (A Very Phoenix Xmas 14)" by relaying a story about me that might honestly cast light on my perspective, which entered its second weekend Friday night at Phoenix Theatre.

Years ago, when I was still on the staff of the Indianapolis Star, an editor and I conferred about an upcoming story. The subject of a personality piece was under discussion, and, to indicate the importance of the feature, my boss informed me: "He's really a rock star."

I knew the description was intended as a figure of speech, because whoever we were discussing did not perform rock music for a living, as far as I knew. But my immediate response to the editor's description was probably stunned silence, because I was thinking: "Really?!  What did he do?"

With ample support, Winston (Dave Pelsue) morphs into the rock star of his dreams.
Turns out the identifying phrase was meant to impress me positively, and the editor proceeded to fill me in. But "rock star" immediately evoked irresponsible sexcapades (as the gossip columnists used to say), drug use and rehab, trashing hotel rooms and other misbehavior that I assumed were typical of rock stars. Why would anyone want that? Wouldn't that pall after, say, six weeks?

I'm from Flint, Michigan, where Keith Moon, drummer of the Who, once drove a car into a motel swimming pool. This famous incident penetrated even my profound ignorance of the rock scene 50 years ago. And it was in line with how I came to think of rock stars, because I'm not a fan of the music and, as a newspaperman in the arts wing, had gleaned bits on the misbehavior of some of its performers,

So along comes the new Phoenix show using a North Pole elf's dream of becoming a rock star as a device to give continuity to the series of songs and sketches. That means that even though I've learned to think that being called a rock star is meant to be something desirable, it was still an effort to see Winston's quest to escape Santa Central and get into Falalalapalooza (I hope I've accurately counted the syllables) as a worthy innovation for this series of Yuletide shows.

We go to the theater in part to be drawn into lives that are unlike ours, so I became slightly sympathetic to the character Dave Pelsue played so energetically. I couldn't quite hold onto that sympathy over the course of two hours, but it's clear the audience (whether rock fans or not) is being engineered to cheer Winston on. Saddled with a last-minute assignment to command Santa's sleigh, guided by the super-fey reindeer Rudolph (Ramon Hutchins), Winston has to master self-doubt concerning both the unexpected worldwide gift-delivering gig and the career he hopes to make in music once he sheds his elf persona.

While I endorse the vision of Chelsea Anderson and  the work of Xmas 14's roster of creators and production team in finding a way to get past the literal sketchiness of its predecessors, the new version of a tried-and-true production depends too much on razzle-dazzle to hide the threadbare story. It's a visual-vocal-instrumental extravaganza that admittedly entertained me along the way, even as I was processing the difficulty of caring much about Winston and Rudolph. At least the distractions were rich: The ensemble — Nathalie Cruz, Andrea Heiden, Jan Lucas, Pearl Scott, John Vessels, and Justin Sears-Watson — proved fit for every turn and twist of scenario.

The finale, "Believe in Yourself," fell into place with a finality that was predictable a mile off. Achieving durable self-esteem after a clutch of struggles is the trajectory of a significant part of recent musical theater.

I probably enjoyed too much Jen Blackmer's sketch involving a small-theater troupe rehearsing in the cold a holiday show designed as a multi-culti smorgasbord in which everyone honors his/her/its/their identity in excess and still goes away hungry. The parodic element, a survey of playwrights and theatrical genres both ancient and modern, was carried off well. But it went on too long.

Youth's texting mania, set as "#repost #xmasmajik" by Riti Sachdeva  at a school holiday dance, also was clever and well-designed. Its scrutiny of social-media isolation and occasional genuine connection had a nice flow to it.
The satirical thrust of Zack Neiditch's sketch on how everyone gets drawn into holiday marketing was keen. Anderson's direction of such pieces was boldly over-the-top, rich in caricature of gesture and voice — matched by the lighting, costumes, and sets.

The limits to the charm "Winston's Big Day" exerted on me go beyond my indifference to rock-star ambitions. Comparing this show to Fonseca Theatre Company's new version of the kind of production Bryan Fonseca pioneered for the Phoenix more than a dozen years ago, I suspect that the supply of irreverent brilliance about the Christmas season may be exhausted. Culturally, on the Santa side, once you get past S.J. Perelman's "Waiting for Santy" and David Sedaris' "Santaland Diaries," there's not much more in the stocking. On the Jesus side, fortunately in an era that may be beyond redemption, the birth of the Redeemer gets a pass in "Winston's Big Day."

Maybe I've had enough of churning up cheekiness about the holiday. As the ratbag mom Mandy says to the Three Wise Men mistakenly ready to worship her son in Monty Python's "Life of Brian": "Go and praise someone else's brat, go on."

And, if it's to your taste, rock on.

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