To survive the holidays, multitasking and time management are musts. In choosing holiday entertainment, then, how efficient to spend a mere 90 minutes wrapped up in a mash-up of #BHCs (Beloved Holiday Classics).
NextStop Theatre Company’s fresh buffet, Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!), packages screwball comedy with cocktail-party trivia. Ever wonder how folks celebrate in Sweden, Australia, Wales, or Easter Island? Audiences are in for a whirlwind global tour — whipping past as fast as Santa’s 650-mile-per-second dash (as calculated by the show’s most grounded player, Rikki Howie). Fun facts balance the farce and fulfill in a way that’s both hysterical and cerebral.
Because honestly, like many theater critics, I’ve come to dread the words “madcap romp” in promotional materials. Nothing like setting the bar too high. But glad tidings here! The three wise-guy gals populating this piece — the dignified Rikki, polished comedian Rebecca “Becca” Ballinger, and a perky, quick-witted Brittany Martz — are bearing durable gifts of golden pranks, nonsense, and mirth.
Though scripted, the play created by Michael Carleton, James FitzGerald, and John K. Alvarez in 2007 has an improvisational feel. It opens with Rikki, ever the adult in the room, earnestly launching into A Christmas Carol. But sidekicks Becca and Brittany stage a rebellion. It’s been “done to death,” they whine. “Nice ghost, hairy ghost, scary ghost …” they chime. Demanding to flip the script on traditionalism, they wind up flipping their lids — literally. Lots of hats flying around. In fact, the slap-dash set design is cumulative, with props and costumes fit for a grade-schooler’s play piling up like a messy playroom.
With cheerleaders’ spirit, Becca and Brittany twist Rikki’s will and recruit the audience as co-conspirators in uncovering the true spirit of Christmas. A passion play it’s not, though. Jesus is barely mentioned. (Even during a brainstorming segment with the audience on opening night, he got passed over — geddit?) But these passionate players will wring out any gloom from the room. Becca is a master of cartoonish impersonations and timing. Rikki, the “straight man,” sparkles vocally and steps up the choreography, especially in her solo turn during a Nutcracker spoof. And Brittany enthralls with an elasticity of expression and enviable talent of spitting out vocab and punchlines that land like tickling pearls.
At a time when the theater world is mourning one of its patron saints, Stephen Sondheim, this work is reminiscent of his fairy-tale remix, Into the Woods. In Every Christmas Story, characters from various pageants invade one another’s storyscapes. Kind-hearted banker George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life repeatedly commingles with cold-hearted miser Ebenezer Scrooge. The Grinch commiserates alongside fellow outcast Rudolph, who picks up some green in his look. You start to wonder if every Christmas tale isn’t just a variation of the same old story. Scrooge and the Grinch aren’t alone in their come-to-Jesus moments, after all.
As old hat as seasonal rites can be, this sketch-comedy blueprint allows ample room for surprise. Frosty the Snowman becomes a cold case in a chilling riff on Law & Order — probably the best-acted scene all around, with Becca’s Frosty the icing on the cake. But brace yourself: Audience-participation segments nearly steal the show — largely due to Brittany’s comic cadenzas. A quiz show that seeks to answer whether Santa Claus is real could be showcased on Saturday Night Live (on a good week). The macarena gets resurrected — twice. A mostly lackluster medley of carols at the end is the only disappointment, but Becca’s interpretations and Rikki’s silky singing keep it from crimping the festive mood.
Producing artistic director Evan Hoffmann injects enough minimalism, novelty, and relevance to bolster the on-stage rebellion while delighting the audience with sonic epiphanies. Keep your ears peeled: Hoffmann’s sound design contains some of the best chestnuts, especially during the pealing of the bells. (And is that a subliminal message in Huey Lewis and the News’ “The Power of Love” riff?) References to the #FreeBritney movement, Kanye “Ye” West, and Squid Games make you wonder how much of the script is written vs. mad ad-libbed. Stage manager Jen Katz frantically works from the wings, shuttling actors through every opening in the black-box Industrial Strength Theatre. All the while, our agile trio skate around copyrights and somehow eschew commercialism even while buying into the crassest sides of Christmas culture.
Combined with lighting design by Helen Garcia-Alton, which alternately bedazzles and sparks shivers during ghostly or solemn vignettes — responding to actors’ cues — Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!) delivers mostly PC-PG family entertainment in a gift you’ll want to return to the theater for.
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!) plays through December 19, 2021, at NextStop Theatre Company’s Industrial Strength Theatre, 269 Sunset Park Drive, Herndon, VA. Tickets ($25) are available for purchase online.
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