Every December I try to catch a few of the more unusual holiday shows. Of course, that means that I see all of Troubadour Theater Company’s December bashes — they’re always original and they’re almost always the funniest holiday shows imaginable. This year’s A Christmas Westside Story is no exception. However, because the Troubies received so many Ovation Awards last month and so much recent attention on LA Stage Times, I’ll start with one of the others.
I was intrigued by the idea of Atomic Holiday Free Fall!, at the Actors’ Gang. It’s billed as “an interactive, Cirque caliber, retro-Vegas, intergalactic comique spectacle!” that aspires to “shed light” on “how and why the Cirque [du Soleil] aesthetic took over Sin City.” Spoiler alert — it was an alien invasion.
No, this premise doesn’t have much to do with the holidays. A Santa Claus wanders around the stage, and a Christmas tree is in the back, but they’re hardly critical to the show’s concept.
Still, a festive circus-infused variety spectacle sounds like an apt holiday entertainment. And perhaps it could be especially appropriate for this particular holiday season, if it includes some sly commentary on Cirque du Soleil, which — with the permanent show Iris now installed in Hollywood and with the traveling Ovo arriving in Santa Monica on Jan. 20 — just might be slowly taking over LA as well as Las Vegas.
Stefan Haves, the creator and director of Atomic Holiday Free Fall!, created some low-budget circus-influenced shows in LA in the late ’80s and early ’90s. They usually struck me as sporadically fun but awfully patchy — with the sort of weaker or overextended moments that you don’t usually find in the Cirque. However, since then, Haves has worked behind the scenes with the Cirque itself, and he has written and directed for Teatro ZinZanni in San Francisco, so I thought that perhaps his latest spectacle would reflect a somewhat more consistent sheen.
It doesn’t. Atomic Holiday has impressive moments and bursts of energy, but its slim narrative gets annoyingly sidetracked, and parts of the evening sag.
At the beginning, the audience is ushered to the stage itself, where we watch one of the aliens, appearing on a big screen, explaining the concept, more or less. Then we pass through a small but glittery 3-D “intergalactic” installation on the way to our seats. Soon the show begins with a glimpse of the chorus line of aliens, on their way to Vegas. They perform a number called “Your Town Follies” that sounds like a leftover from a similar production with that title, which was staged by Haves last year in a couple LA venues.
As the show goes on, the old-fashioned Vegas entertainment scene — supposedly soon to be invaded by the aliens — is depicted primarily by three tuxedoed men and several glitzy showgirls. In the most dragged-out segment of the evening, we watch a big-screen clip from a TV variety special in which Eddie Fisher, Andy Williams and Bobby Darin sing a rendition of “Do Re Mi” (from The Sound of Music) while the three tuxedoed men more or less mimic the scene on stage.
When I think of Rat Pack-era Vegas, “Do Re Mi” is not the first song that enters my brain. Vegas entertainers might have sung it on a sanitized TV special back then, but it hardly conjures the atmosphere of early-’60s Vegas.
But the most distracting element of the evening occurs when the aliens are diverted away from Vegas to Memphis. Why this happens is never explained — or justified. It’s not as if we get a glimpse of Elvis at Graceland or anything so glamorous. Instead, we get a comic monologue from a woman who’s supposedly representing the Memphis Chamber of Commerce but becomes, er, distracted.
After the aliens finally return to Vegas (somehow taking Route 66 is supposed to do the trick, although Route 66 didn’t go through Vegas), we never really get a glimpse of how they gradually took over the town via the Cirque’s extravaganzas.
To be sure, throughout the evening, we see a couple of impressive Cirque-style acts (on the evening I was there, Seb & Katia did a ground-level body balancing dance and Eric Newton did a number on the trapeze — but the specific performers can vary). We also see some more old-fashioned vaudeville-style acts (for example, tap dancer Sarah Reich and Haves himself in his comic novelty act “Back Man”) that seem more representative of Ed Sullivan than of Vegas in any era.
I don’t expect an airtight narrative out of a show like this, nor I do I expect it from Cirque du Soleil. But Cirque shows are never this unfocused, this slack. And it isn’t just high-budget Cirque shows that have what Atomic Holiday lacks. Traces, the 7 Fingers production at the Montalban earlier this year, lacked a Cirque budget, but it was much more cohesive than Atomic Holiday.
Atomic Holiday Free Fall!, Actors’ Gang, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. Dec. 14-23, 31, 8 pm. 310-838-4264. www.theactorsgang.org.
***All Atomic Holiday Free Fall! production photos by Nathan Kornelis
The Troubies have some circus roots, too, but these are a little harder to discern in their latest, A Christmas Westside Story, than in many of their previous shows. Instead, the movement here is primarily designed to evoke the Jerome Robbins choreography from West Side Story.
Yes, it’s true — the Troubies jazz up their interpretation of the 1983 movie A Christmas Story, drawn from Jean Shepherd’s memories, with music and dance derived from West Side Story. That, of course, is the kind of juxtaposition that is the Troubie trademark, and it reaps richly comic benefits.
Shepherd’s material consists of reminiscences about small events from his boyhood in a fairly white-bread suburb of Chicago, around the Christmas season. West Side Story, of course, is about life-or-death romance, gang warfare and cultural tensions within a big city.
The Bernstein music for West Side Story is larger-than-life — but then to almost any nine-year-old boy, such as the one in the Shepherd stories, events that might seem tiny to the rest of us can assume overwhelming emotional weight. By employing the near-operatic dimensions of the West Side Story music, Matt Walker and the rest of the Troubies make that point very well, magnifying the intrinsic irony of their juxtaposition for all that it’s worth. Ralphie in A Christmas Story is as devoted to his hoped-for BB gun as Tony is to Maria — so why shouldn’t he sing about it?
As usual, the Troubies also add a third layer of references from our particular time and place. In fact, on opening night Walker quipped about a news story that had broken that very day in Hollywood. Of course, not all of these more topical bits work — aren’t Sarah Palin jokes past their sell-by date? But on the whole, they create a sense that the Troubies are performing for us, in 2011 Burbank, not for audiences who might enjoy this material in some future time or some other place.
By the way, I had never seen A Christmas Story. So I read the Wikipedia synopsis of the movie in the 15 minutes before I left for the theater. It’s a tribute to the much-maligned Wikipedia, as well as to the Walker-led Troubies, that I never felt lost at sea during anything that was going on.
However, I was so taken by the results that, the following day, I was compelled to find a DVD of A Christmas Story at the local library. As I watched it, not only did I relish refreshing my memories of the show from the previous night, but I enjoyed seeing what parts of the movie did not enter the Troubie version (for those who know the movie, you won’t find the hillbilly neighbors’ dogs or their assault on the Christmas turkey at the Falcon, although you will find a very brief costume reference to the Chinese restaurant dinner that substituted for the turkey). I’m now a fan of A Christmas Story — although not quite as much as I’m a fan of West Side Story and the Troubies.
A Christmas Westside Story, Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Dr., Burbank. Wed-Fri 8 pm, Sat 4 and 8 pm, Sun 4 and 7 pm. (but show times may vary — check at www.FalconTheatre.com or call 818-955-8101). Dark Dec. 24-25, 31 and Jan. 1. Closes Jan. 15.
***All A Christmas Westside Story production photos by Chelsea Sutton
A Chanukah Carol at Theatre 68 also offers an unlikely juxtaposition. A live holiday radio production of A Christmas Carol during the ’40s is thrown into potential turmoil when the movie star who would voice Scrooge is unable to get to the studio. The only suitable replacement in the studio turns out to be Jewish, despite his country-Western attire and stage name (Tex Shelton, played by Marty Dusig), and he insists on changing the Christmas references to Chaunkah references before he agrees to do the part.
It’s a stretch, but a fairly amusing one. And the cultural background has an element of truth, considering that plenty of Jews in old-time showbiz were asked to contribute to Christmas shows or movies or songs (Irving Berlin is probably the most famous).
This is not a satirical musical like A Christmas Westside Story. It’s staged in a fairly realistic depiction of a Hollywood radio studio from that era, so the implausibilities are a little more glaring that that they would be in something that’s more stylized from the get-go. It’s also too bad that Ryan Paul James’ script doesn’t allow us to witness the conversation in which the Scrooge replacement negotiates his terms — it takes place behind the scenes, while we’re playing the role of studio audience.
But the script does contain many an amusing moment as the cast struggles with the Jewish references and with the Yiddish, which the sound effects guy helpfully translates on cue cards. The ending adds an ironic twist that makes the whole affair somewhat more credible, although it could be stated a little more clearly.
It’s part of Theatre 68’s ongoing Lost in Radioland series.
A Chanukah Carol, Theater 68, 5419 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Closes Sunday. 323-960-5068. www.theatre68.com.
The producer of A Chanukah Carol, Theatre 68’s artistic director Ronnie Marmo, doesn’t get to see some of the performances, because he’s playing a key role in the Elephant Theatre’s stage adaptation of the Tennessee Williams screenplay Baby Doll.
He plays the Italian cotton gin owner in Tiger Tail, Mississippi in the late ’50s, who becomes the business rival and then the romantic rival of Archie Lee Meighan (Tony Gatto). The third member of this triangle is the title character (Lulu Brud).
Joel Daavid directed and designed this production, with the help of movement choreographer Adam Haas Hunter. That an adaptation of a Tennessee Williams screenplay even has a movement choreographer is an indication of the painstaking efforts that Daavid has made to theatricalize this script. An extended movement sequence at the beginning of the play eloquently relates through music and movement some of the underlying inequities and economic deprivations that were at the bedrock of Mississippi society in that era. Nick Block’s original score deepens the oppressive atmosphere that also pervades the Meighan marriage, in which both husband and wife are adversaries more than partners.
As a portrait of an older man, his young wife and a younger man, I was reminded of O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms, which I saw recently at A Noise Within. A dash of Daavid’s carefully designed context might have made that production of Desire linger in my mind a little longer.
Baby Doll, Elephant Theatre Company at the Lillian Theatre, 1076 N. Lillian Way, Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm. Dark from next Monday through Jan 5. Closes Jan 22. www.plays411.com/babydoll or www.elephanttheatrecompany.com. 323-960-4420.