By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Somewhere Lawrence Welk is smiling. This holiday season there's ah-one and ah-two oldies musical revues on the boards, each offering Welkified close-harmony classics and G-rated tributes to jukebox eras gone by. Forever Plaid at Plano Repertory Theatre weaves pop hits from the '50s and early '60s into a threadbare story line about members of a Lettermen-like quartet who died the same night in 1964 that the Beatles debuted on The Ed Sullivan Show. Rockin' Christmas Party, WaterTower Theatre's annual romp, fills two and a half hours with high-volume vocal performances of TV themes, country classics, disco, Motown and assorted other musical genres. Both shows offer solid middle-of-the-road entertainment with nary a mention of Cratchit, Marley or Scrooge. Bless 'em for that.
Written by Stuart Ross, with musical arrangements by James Raitt, Forever Plaidoffers 90 minutes of nonstop name-that-tune nostalgia. Four clumsy lads called the Plaids, dressed in identical pink shirts and plaid cummerbunds, return from the afterlife for a one-time-only concert of 30 songs from the days of sock hops and Perry Como sweaters. Their set list includes "Catch a Falling Star," "Day-O," "Heart and Soul," "Lady of Spain," "Papa Loves Mambo," "Perfidia," "Rags to Riches" and "Shangri-La." Long about the 10th tune, it starts to feel like the channel's stuck on a public television pledge drive special.
Skie Ocasio, Mark Frie, Jon Paul Burkhart and Edward Requenez play Frankie, Smudge, Sparky and Jinx, the boys who dreamed of stardom but never got beyond weekend gigs at bowling alleys. An "expanding hole in the ozone layer" has allowed the Plaids to reunite before ascending to something just this side of rock-and-roll heaven. Instead of angel wings, they'll be granted matching red plaid jackets by the great disc jockey in the sky.
Hit-and-miss musically (Ocasio's voice cracks on the money notes), the cast at Plano Rep does better by the comedy. One get-down sequence has them dashing through a three-minute, fast-forward re-enactment of every really big "shew" Ed Sullivan ever hosted. Like goofy dervishes, the guys spin plates, swallow fire, dance ballet, sing opera, bring on a dog act, play the accordion, say "S'awright" to Senor Wences' fist and bid goodnight to Topo Gigio. Funniest to watch is Burkhart, who's done strong work in several broad comedies at local theaters this year. He really shines in Plaid. With his hair slicked back, Burkhart looks a little like Jimmy Boyd, the freckle-faced kid who sang about seeing Mommy kissing Santa Claus in 1952.
If only this production weren't plagued by some of the same technical problems so often seen at Plano Rep. Randel Wright's set design is fine, a visual tribute to the stages of old nightclubs like the Mocambo and the Latin Quarter. But Susan A. White's lighting is a mess. When the four singers line up center stage, the lights are focused right at their bellies. Poor Skie Ocasio. The face of this tall, dark and handsome actor is often left in the dark by the too-dim lighting. Costumes by B.J. Evans are on the cheap side. The Plaids' white dinner jackets don't fit well, and one had loose lining hanging out on opening night. They should get the glitches smoothed out by the time the show moves to Plano's ArtCentre Theatre for an extended run starting January 8.
No costume or lighting probs at Rockin' Christmas Party. Everything's acey-deucey in this slick WaterTower show (directed by Terry Martin), which blows by in a blizzard of psychedelic colors, gi-normous wigs and incongruous pop songs interrupted by only occasional references to the reason for the season. When they get to "Joy to the World," it's the one with the bullfrog in it.
The four women in the cast--Natalie King, Denise Lee, Amy Stevenson and Jenny Thurman--own voices of angels, and all have the remarkable ability to shift easily among the vocal demands of rock, gospel, country and R&B. They're also gifted comedians, particularly Thurman, who can sing funny while also singing great. King and Lee make the most of numerous solos. Lee turns "Bridge Over Troubled Water" into a showstopping anthem without any of that American Idol run-the-scale nonsense. And those famous divas of MTV have nothing on Lee's rendition of "Lady Marmalade."
Dane Hereford and William Blake are new to the show this year. Hereford, burdened with a poofy pompadour wig, dances better than he sings, but he sizzles on James Brown's "I Feel Good." As for Blake, if Marie Osmond and Wayne Newton have a secret love child, he might be it. He's a showbizzy tenor with a tendency to mug.
You gotta love a Christmas show that includes the theme songs for The Jeffersonsand Shaft and gets every old coot in the audience on his feet to spell out the Village People's "YMCA." Midway through, there's even a limbo contest. Here's a cast willing to bend over backward to give everyone a good time.
Like those little unexpected goodies stuffed in a Christmas stocking, Christmas at Ground Zerois full of small, tasty surprises. Yule Pay for Thatby Robert Meyers-Morgan, directed by Matt Tomlanovich, features Sean Perez and Brian Witkowicz as unscrupulous ad men determined to rid the world of Santa, a character who can't be copyrighted or profited from. In Santa's place they install "Blizzarre," a violent comic-book superhero who makes the red-suited fat man look like "a giant, mutant, power-crazed Insanity Claus." As a comment on media manipulation, this plot's not so far-fetched. Our collective image of Old St. Nick came from illustrations on Coca-Cola ads.
Think Tanks by Isabella Russell-Ides, also directed by Tomlanovich, finds two bubbas drinkin' and spittin' as they try to sort out the state of the world. "If there never was a Jesus," muses Dwayne (John Hammers), "we wouldn't be fightin' these A-rabs!" Dwayne considers mayonnaise a "gourmet food." He and Darrell (Witkowicz) suspect that Disney is behind the unrest in the Middle East. It's a funny little script, even if the characters do say "Woo doggies."
James Venhaus provides the two funniest plays in this year's collection. Directed by Wm. Paul Williams, Santa's Little Helperstars the delectable Andra Laine as the office wench, spicing up the back room at a company Christmas party. But what she provides her male suitors is more gift from the heart than of the flesh. Venhaus' writing here is sharp and tight, managing to get across loads of subtext in just a few pages. Laine goes solo in Venhaus' Happy Holidays From Anderson, Davis, Seton & Fenner, playing a phone-crazed receptionist trying to get away on the eve of Christmas Eve. Tangled in the headset, half in, half out of an elf suit, sobbing in comic frustration, Laine is as loony and lovable as Lucy.
Brendan Ahern, Kelli Elandis, Rasa Hollender and Duane Jones are the perpetrators of Flocked. Jones is hi-dang-larious as a half-drunk redneck trying to call for help from under a "tannenbaum of terror." Hollender is "Patty the Witness," the super-Christian offending everyone with her over-the-top office nativity display. Hollender also narrates A Christmas Carolperformed by "Raw Meat Theater." Scrooge is a huge raw turkey. The choir is a pack of weenies. Tiny Tim is a can of Starkist, just as he should be.
This is comedy bizarre, sometimes frightening, mostly really, really funny. PUNCH DRUnK may not have the Christmas spirit, but they do have Christmas balls.