Review: ‘Christmas in Hell’ at the York Theatre Company

Oops! When eight-year-old Davin is rushed to the ICU on Christmas Eve for eating a piece of tainted re-gifted fruitcake, he is erroneously taken down to Hell in place of mass murderer Charles Manson, who is a star patient in the same hospital, signing autographs and taking selfies with the staff.

A hit in the 2015 FringeNYC (under the title Hell Is for Real), followed by a developmental reading in the 2017 New York Musical Festival (where it was voted Show-Score’s Best of Fest), Christmas in Hell, with book, music, and lyrics by Gary Apple (a writer for The Simpsons and other TV sitcoms and variety shows) is an irreverent and cynical send-up of religion and the holidays that is decidedly not for kids, but also not for truly “mature” audiences.

Now playing a full-stage limited engagement with the York Theatre Company, the rough and raw fringey show has undergone extensive rewrites during its preview performances, but still lacks theatrical refinement, with an unpolished tone that’s more in line with an extended Saturday Night Live skit or cable TV comedy, loaded with f-bombs, stereotypes, groan-inducing humor, and juvenile appeal.

Dathan B. Williams, Ron Wisniski, Donna English, Zak Risinger, Elijah Rayman, Scott Ahearn, and Brandon Williams. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Dathan B. Williams, Ron Wisniski, Donna English, Zak Risinger, Elijah Rayman, Scott Ahearn, and Brandon Williams. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Presented in the format of a memory play, the narrative shifts back and forth between the present police investigation of the satanic stealing of Davin’s soul, to re-enactments of the events leading up to it, and his father’s subsequent quest to save his son by making a deal with the Devil. Directed and choreographed by Bill Castellino, the production features an understated Scott Ahearn and diligent Elijah Rayman as the concerned dad and his young boy, transformed by the denizens of the underworld from nice to naughty.

They are supported by an ensemble of six (Ron Wisniski, Lori Hammel, Donna English, Dathan B. Williams, Zak Risinger, and Brandon Williams) in the multiple roles of clichéd precinct, school, and hospital workers, ecclesiastics and demon worshipers, in over-the-top parodies of film noir, opera, holiday and horror movies, with intentionally overblown characterizations and movements that lack comic control and finesse. But all of that changes with the appearance of Brandon Williams as Lucifer in Act II, who steals the show with his powerhouse rock-star persona, vocals, and moves, his devilish attitude, and his subtle transition from Davin’s manipulative master to relenting friend.

Brandon Williams. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Apple’s satirical score – well played by Tomoko Akaboshi on violin, Darren Lucas on guitar, Mark Papazian on drums, and Conductor Logan Medland, who provides music direction, supervision, and arrangements, on keyboards – combines bouncy tunes (“Mrs. Huvey’s Complaint” that her student Davin is “f-u-c-k-e-d u-p”) with hard-rock beats (the ownership of souls by the Prince of Darkness in “Mine!”), cult-like chants (“Nobody Knows” the effects of the secret elixir that gives entry to Hell), semi-operatic solos (the verbose “There Is Nothing More That I Can Say”), and sappy ballads (expressing the need to love your family even “More Than Cheese”) that define the moods of the scenes and the characters. Among the highlights of the songs is Risinger’s delivery of “When Your Hands Are Too Big” by the not-so-frightening but long-fingered Carl, the Boogeyman.

The intemperate story is enhanced by James Morgan’s colorful cartoonish set (with moving panels of the flames and gates of Hell cleverly carried from behind by the cast), Yael Lubetzky’s infernal lighting, and hilarious costumes by Tyler M. Holland that readily identify the stock figures and lend an eye-popping Pop-culture aesthetic to the production.

Despite all of its dark humor, foul language, and sardonic views, Christmas in Hell ultimately delivers an uncharacteristically sweet message of love and its power of redemption, which comes just before its final FU to popular holiday traditions. So if you’re in the mood for giving the middle finger to all things seasonal, this just might be the show for you; but don’t expect a mature level of professional finish above entertainment on the fringe.

Running Time: Approximately two hours, including an intermission.

Christmas in Hell plays through Sunday, December 30, 2018, at the York Theatre Company, performing at St. Peter’s – 619 Lexington Avenue, NYC. For tickets, call (212) 935-5820, or purchase them online.