In the Moment: ‘Christmas at the Old Bull and Bush’ at MetroStage

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Brimming with heart, musical numbers to elicit smiles, a unique wit, some audience sing-alongs, and moments that disrupt theatrical norms, MetroStage’s Christmas at the Old Bull and Bush is a charmer. It is lovely, lively fare for the Holidays; a figgy pudding in all its sweet glory.

Written and directed by Catherine Flye, the pre-1920’s British music-hall-style entertainment and antics of Christmas at the Old Bull and Bush is chock-full of jolly jokes meant to cause groaning, and almost three-dozen Holiday-tinged musical numbers either from or about The Great War and its memory.

Tracey Stephens and Albert Coia. Photo by Chris Banks.

But, wait. Christmas at the Old Bull and Bush is more than a blithe, carefree production to forget one’s cares and woes. There is a poignancy to it as it flows into Act II. The production has weight and serious convictions. There is also a singular tenderness hidden not so deeply when a song such as “Keep the Home Fires Burning” receives its just do.

Keep the Home Fires Burning,
While your hearts are yearning,
Though your lads are far away
They dream of home

From an e-mail exchange with Christmas at the Old Bull and Bush writer and director Catherine Flye, I came to learn that some of the production’s authenticity came from memories she has of listening to her father tell stories about The Great War, or listening to her father read aloud from passages of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Flye took those memories as a starting point to develop Christmas at the Old Bull and Bush.

Given her song selections, one does not have to be steeped into the now more than 100 years ago Great War to embrace the production. As I recall even WW I Flying Ace Snoopy knew such numbers as “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary“ and “Pack Your Troubles.”

The MetroStage production of Christmas at the Old Bull and Bush has the comic chops and glorious voices of the endearingly bawdy Tracey Stephens, a coy Katherine Riddle, the arched eyebrows performance of Brian O’Connor, the Borscht Belt-like humor of Albert Cola, along with Peter Boyer’s work as a maligned bar-keep. And Flye has several cute comical turns as well.

Then add in what had me in particular bliss: the smooth, wide-ranging baritone voice of Bob McDonald. He gave fresh life and new insights to three songs I thought I knew. If you don’t know DC’s McDonald here is a quick take: He has had a diverse musical career that includes not only summer cabaret performances at Signature Theatre, but regularly singing the National Anthem at Washington Caps games and current service in the United Stage Army Chorus.

Let me highlight the three numbers that McDonald sang with the piano accompaniment of Joseph Walsh. In Act I, are the chirpy lyrics and dashing, romantic presentation of “On the Road to Mandalay.” The song is based upon the Rudyard Kipling poem about British troops stationed in Burma (now Myanmar). Sung by McDonald dressed in tails and top hot the sentiments about returning to an exotic world so unlike Britain were easy to understand: “Come you back, you British soldier, Come you back to Mandalay.”

McDonald has the voice and effect to give his own personal rendition of that American secular ode to the Christmas season, “A Christmas Song.” On the chilly, snow-flake-encrusted evening I took in the show, I easily drifted back to my own memories of many a New York City December night, with hot chestnuts right off a street vendor’s grill.

Act II opened with “Christmas in the Trenches,” and McDonald’s voice caused me to have a catch in my throat. Trenches is a song based upon the famous ‘Christmas Truce’ of 1914, when The Great War was still young, and the various sides had not yet become the mortal enemies they were to become. As I learned from my interview with Flye, it is a number that McDonald recommended for Christmas at the Old Bull and Bush. In the way it was set by Flye, costumed by Michael Sharp, and delivered by McDonald, it had a persuasive, quiet, anti-war sentiment.

Let me add, that as McDonald sang “Christmas in the Trenches,” I was carried back to the great WWI anti-war movie, Paths of Glory, staring Kirk Douglas, and the last scene when the singing of a frightened young German woman brought rowdy French infantrymen to rapt silence with misty eyes.

Concluding with a full-throated sing-along of “Auld Lang Syne,” MetroStage’s Christmas at the Old Bull and Bush is full of a rich Christmas spirit from another time and place that is jolly-good fun. It is a distinctive Holiday diversion from too many Nutcrackers or A Christmas Carols, for those inclined. Just don’t let the poignant parts pass you by, please. MetroStage’s Christmas at the Old Bull and Bush has a savory meaty core, not unlike the spicy sausage sandwich with hot mustard I had before the performance, hawked by Michael Sharp in the MetroStage foyer. Yum.

Running Time: About two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.

Christmas at the Old Bull & Bush plays through December 24, 2017, at Metro Stage — 1201 North Royal Street in Alexandria, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 548-9044, or purchase them online.

Note: A plug for the sausage rolls I consumed at MetroStage. They are from Parker’s Great British Institution. www.parkersbritishinstitution.com, Email: hello@parkersgb.com

Note: DC Metro Theater Arts review by Hilary Sutton is here