reviewed by Larry Adams

You’re regifting the Savior?”

  • Unnamed Wise Man

“Tis the season for Christmas shows, and first up at A Seat on the Aisle is A Very Bryan Chrystmas: How the Grinch Culturally Appropriated Christmas. Ok, technically it’s not the first Christmas show- see Ken Klingenmeier’s review of Beef and Boards’ A Christmas Story- The Musical from last week- but it’s the first to have the decency to wait until after Thanksgiving to open, so I’m gonna call it the first anyway, just on principle. Produced by the one-year-old, west side Fonseca Theatre Company, whose vision statement, according to its website, is to “give voice to and celebrate the minority communities of Indianapolis through the prism of purposeful theater and civic engagement,” this roughly 90 minute collection of skits, songs and dance drives pretty much exclusively down the Christmas side of Santa Claus Lane, with one brief detour into the holiday of the Jewish community.

I’ll admit from the start I may not have been the best choice to review this show. I am not a big fan of skit-based productions, with the possible exception of Monty Python, and truth be told, even that legendary troupe has only a handful of pieces that really stand up to repeated viewing. There simply isn’t time in the format for depth or character development, subtlety or nuance, and so it necessarily relies on quick wit, originality and belly laughs to carry the load. When these are in short supply, the pieces tend to collapse rather quickly under their own weight- or rather lack of weight- subjecting the audience to a sort of slow, theatrical death march to the final curtain. Such was the case, I’m afraid, for much of Friday night’s opening night offering.

(from top left) Actors Paul Hansen, Dorian Wilson, Jean Arnold, Jon Stombaugh and Phebe Taylor surround Director Bryan Fonseca

The show begins amiably enough with In the Same Country, involving two shepherds and The Almighty on the night of Jesus’s fabled birth in Bethlehem. Easily the most political piece of the night, the skit pretty quickly and regrettably trots out every Trump cliché ever written, though in a gently humorous if not particularly original fashion. In one of the show’s few seamless transitions, this skit segues nicely into playwright Mark Harvey-Levine’s Oye Vey, Maria and Last Minute Shoppers. These latter two offerings score the biggest laughs of the evening, combining standout performances from Jean Arnold and Dorian Wilson with some solid comedic hits, even if only on the rather tired targets of stereotypical Jewish mothers and Christmas commercialism.

Not all the skits fare so well, unfortunately. The weakest one – surprisingly, given the theatrical pedigree of its author – is Mistletopriation, a ponderously heavy-handed and predictable piece on discrimination against Syrian immigrants, or I guess all Muslims, really. Ostensibly a comedy, it is completely devoid of laughs, despite actor Paul Collier Hansen’s best efforts to inject some levity by way of a thoroughly out of place comic book Grinch, bizarrely trading scenes with workers in a modern-day, Syrian-owned warehouse. Thankfully, the cast was adept enough Friday night not to press for yucks that clearly weren’t coming, as the audience sat quietly waiting for it to just end. The show’s program ticked off a pretty impressive list of the playwright’s past theatrical awards and scripts, so he’s clearly got the chops; but this one, at least for me, was a hard miss.

The show does manage to pull off some bright spots, despite the uneven skit scripts, though mostly in its song and dance numbers. Between the first two skits, a beautifully harmonized rendition of The Little Drummer Boy is served up. Later, Phebe Taylor delivers a charming ode to the passage of time with Arbolita, and Jonathon Stombaugh does a fine job with both guitar and vocals on Christmas. Hansen and Wilson are each deservedly highlighted in a couple of dance numbers that drew the greatest crowd responses of the evening; as someone who can’t dance a lick, I was particularly appreciative of these two gentlemen who made it look oh-so-easy. And finally, despite its somewhat annoyingly insistent dismissal of the Christmas story and religion, White Wine in the Sun delivers a nice, emotional cap to the show. Credit Music Director Tim Brickley and Choreographer Mariel Greenlee for some of the best moments of the night.

Laurie Silverman deserves praise for costumes which help set the scene and tone without being overdone, while set designer Daniel Uhde has created a minimalist though evocative space for the action. This comes complete with a rear projection screen that nicely services some of the settings and transitions- though its use to bombard the audience with ads for future shows during the scene changes can only be described as an odd and distracting choice.

The “Bottom Line,” as ASOTA head honcho Ken Klingenmeier characteristically puts it, is a little hard for me to come by. Though I’m intrigued by the theater and appreciative of its mission in the community, this 13th edition of Bryan Fonseca’s holiday variety show just didn’t quite deliver as advertised, for me at least. If you’re in the mood for some live and light theater to brighten up your holidays, this may be just the ticket for you. You’ll find the cast to be energetic and talented, and the theater and its personnel warm and inviting. But if you’re looking for something with a little more substance in its depth, humor and emotional pull, you might be better off curling up by the fire with a well-worn copy of It’s A Wonderful Life. Or maybe Die Hard.

A Very Bryan Chrystmas: How the Grinch Culturally Appropriated Christmas continues at Fonseca Theatre Company’s 2508 W Michigan Street venue through December 22nd. For tickets go online at https://fonsecatheatre.org/buy-tickets/ or call the Box Office at 317-653-1519.