|Megan Carver, Craig Allen, Amy Jo Halliday, and Ben Farmer.|
By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
Is there really a war on Christmas? If so, the news has not yet reached Broadway Rose. However, the venerable theater company’s 2014 tribute to the holiday season, A Christmas Survival Guide, makes it clear that there is a shootin’ war on Christmas clichés, including (unfortunately) classic holiday theater fare.
Sad to say, the thin premise of “Dr. Ben’s” absurd “Christmas Survival Guide” is inadequate to link the show’s 18 musical numbers into an engaging narrative. Many of the songs/skits are cute, witty, and occasionally touching – but even a top-notch Broadway Rose cast is hard-pressed to make a silk purse out of this particular sow’s ear. The result is an entertaining bit of holiday fluff that, while well worth seeing, still makes us wish it had been so much more.
Craig Allen, Megan Carver, Ben Farmer, and Amy Jo Halliday are four of the strongest performers in the Portland musical theater world, and each gives everything they’ve got to their numbers. Their voices blend beautifully in several ensemble pieces, and their individual spots are uniformly excellent. The vocal expertise is complemented by a hot trio of musicians led by music director/pianist Jeffrey Childs, and the actors’ occasional interaction with Childs is a clever and effective touch.
Halliday’s turn as the angst-riddled Mrs. Claus in “Surabaya Santa” is hilariously Teutonic; she evokes memories of Lotte Lenya and Marlene Dietrich, giving her a chance to show off comedic skills that rival her vocal ability. Carver’s manic delivery of “The Twelve Steps of Christmas” is another comic highlight of the show – she milks the song for all it’s worth, and it pays off with audience appreciation. The chaotic staging and arrangement of “Silver Bells” does not really allow Farmer to display his excellent voice, but his portrayal of Elvis in “Santa Claus Is Back In Town” more than compensates – and his Presley-esque interaction with the audience closes the first act with a bang. “This Will Be the Best Christmas Ever” features Allen and Carver in a classic song of miscommunication; Allen’s quiet insistence on decorating the tree with Star Wars ornaments and Carver’s single-minded determination to remove them nicely expresses the quandary of couples with misaligned holiday expectations – and where, oh where, did they get that wonderful Yoda tree-topper?
Despite the disjointed nature of the script, director Dan Murphy makes sure that the show runs smoothly. Sound and lighting are flawless, the attractive single set allows for rapid shifts in locale, and the numbers are cast so that the many changes of costume and persona do not slow down the production. The Director’s notes accurately assert that “some of the songs are upbeat and bouncy, some funny, some poignant…some will be new, some will be familiar” – all true. However, we must differ with his belief that the songs are “all terrific” – there are a few too many formulaic potboilers and not enough heartwarming holiday classics to fulfill Murphy’s “guarantee there will be something in this show that will catch you reflecting on a Christmas past, or excite you for a Christmas future, all the while enjoying the Christmas present.”
“A Christmas Survival Guide” is playing at the Broadway Rose New Stage Theater in Tigard through December 21.