By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Holy, holy, moly. Go to WaterTower Theatre, if you dare, to witness the "world premiere" of Happy Holi-divas!, a craptacular sleigh ride of Christmas-themed claptrap that will jingle-jangle you into a headache that goes pah-rum-pah-pum-pum on the top of your skull.
In one two-hour musical revue, collaborating writers James Paul Lemons, who also directed, and Michael Serrecchia, working from an idea by WaterTower's artist director Terry Martin, jam together almost everything worth dreading about the season: syrupy sentiments, hacky jokes, plus "Frosty" and "Rudolph" and the other godawful ditties. "Do You Hear What I Hear?" Pity if you do.
The premise of the show, spindly as Charlie Brown's Christmas tree, presents four "divas"—Jenny Thurman, Sally Soldo, Arianna Movassagh, Dara Whitehead-Allen—oversinging a lot of holiday junk and trying to cheerlead the audience with painfully forced enthusiasm ("Hello, everybody! I said, HELLO, EVERYBODY!"). Enter ponytailed Stacey Oristano, last seen at WaterTower in the lead of Urinetown the Musical. Playing a dippy, wide-eyed box office girl who aspires to diva-dom, Oristano keeps popping up onstage to sing and dance in her too-tight red sweater and too-wrinkled chinos, to the fake annoyance of the other four ladies. Like a drug-resistant bacterium, she eventually infects the act and ends up with her own solo, a tremulous, off-key version of Joni Mitchell's "River."
The four main divas are given themes to play with. Thurman ga-hicks around as the country diva, belting out "Hard Candy Christmas," which she also sang as Miss Mona in Contemporary Theatre of Dallas' recent production of Best Little Whorehouse. Whitehead-Allen's the classical one, doing "Frosty the Snowman" as opera and sounding ever so much like Bobbi Moughan-Culp, the warbling middle-school music teacher Ana Gasteyer used to play alongside Will Ferrell on SNL.
Soldo, a Theatre Three veteran with Mamie Eisenhower pin curls, does Big Band (not really, but that's what she says). She offers up the least sexy "Santa Baby" ever performed by someone who isn't an Osmond. Movassagh is "international diva," which puts her in a variety of atrocious "ethnic" costumes to sing "Christmas at Killarney" with a terrible Irish brogue and "Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella" in French. Bring a torch, all right.
Oristano, white as the powdered sugar on a marshmallow, declares she wants to be "gospel-soul diva." That's cringe-making enough, but then she says she wants to sing "like Whitney Houston pre-drugs and Michael Jackson when he was black," references that not only sound racist and inappropriate considering the setting but are so stale you couldn't feed them to a starving pigeon.
It gets worse. When the microphones are working, which they were only sporadically on opening night, you have to hear not just the terrible dialogue and strained comedy bits but far too many nutcracking attempts at high notes that don't edge anywhere close to their intended targets. It is a Yuletidal wave of rotten singing with one exception: Jenny Thurman. Stuck in this dud wearing what look to be the same Dale Evans skirts and vests she donned as star of WaterTower's two musicals about Patsy Cline, Thurman gives it her all and tries to sell it as a lark. It's as if she's performing in a separate, much better show all her own. Thurman's velvety voice makes "Merry Christmas, Darling" a seductive dream. In the second act she steps out of her country persona to do a spot-on impression of Judy Garland singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," a moment so surprisingly sublime, given what surrounds it, that the opening night audience burst into sustained, spontaneous applause. Thurman's the only diva on this stage.
The 31-song score strings Muzak-y tunes such as "Come Onna My House" and "My Favorite Things" among traditional carols and sacred hymns. So you get "Hot Chocolate" followed immediately by "The Hallelujah Chorus," during which—are you ready for it?—the gals do hand-to-Handel comedy cat-fighting. In the second act, Soldo says a line that sounds like a lift from a Lawrence Welk Christmas special: "Let's do a song in tribute to our friends of the Jewish faith." That would be "Shaloo Shalom." But next, "Ave Maria"? No, I had one at church, where it belongs, thanks.
With more dead spots than a Norwegian spruce on Boxing Day, this may be the worst show of 2006 on any Dallas stage that calls itself professional. Deck the halls...and the guys who wrote Happy Holi-divas!
Gloria, gloria, in Excedrin deo.
The changes of venue and performer have had mirth-melting effects on Santaland. It's not as funny now, doesn't have that "Stuff it, Christmas!" zing. And director Terry Martin, perhaps suffering some horrendous Holi-divas! hangover, has slowed down the pacing, never a good move with comedy.
Not every theatergoer will have experienced Cooper's Crumpet—as charming but bitterly cynical a malcontent as ever donned the candy-striped elfin tights—so they won't see right away why Sedaris' character and the material, adapted for the New York stage by Joe Mantello, just aren't good fits for Wold. Cooper looked and sounded perfect for the part, using his Grinchy eyebrows to punctuate the best lines in Sedaris' jaundiced take on the maelstrom that is Macy's in December. When he hopped up into the oversized armchair centerstage to smoke a cig, he was an elf on the edge of a nervous breakdown—"Ever notice that 'Santa' is an anagram for 'Satan'?" he'd growl—and it was pee-the-knickers hilarious.
The bulkier Wold, a character actor who co-starred on the big stage at WaterTower in Take Me Out and Into the Woods, is a comic performer more in the Red Skelton mold. No arched brows and deadpan smirks. No cigarettes. Wold's gentle puppy-dog looks say "love me, please," and his drooping shoulders seem to signal defeat instead of defiance. Cooper's Crumpet delighted in acting the killjoy to the squirmy brats and pushy moms waiting to see St. Nick. Wold's wants to kill them with kindness.
Wold does fine with the quiet, poignant sections of The Santaland Diaries, talking about the handicapped kids and the for-hire Santa who brings a sweet spark of magic to his job, but he doesn't mine the laugh potential in a show aimed at dumping some much-needed lumps of coal on the overcommercialization of Christmas.