By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
After a three-year hiatus, during which it tried other holiday fare that actually was worse than this, WaterTower returns to Rockin', which originated with an idea by Dave Steakley, artistic director at Austin's Zachary Scott Theatre Center. Alterations and updates have changed the material some over the years, but basically it's a two-hour medley of old pop tunes and tired Christmas standards.
One minute they're bopping their brains out to a souped-up "Jingle Bells," the next they're movin' on up to the theme from The Jeffersons, followed by a not-so-smooth transition to a portly woman (Sara Shelby-Martin) in a black pompadour and sparkly polyester jumpsuit doing Elvis as a hunka-hunka burnin' love.
Oh, the humanity.
And that's only Act 1.
WaterTower's cast works itself to a sweaty froth as they go through the motions of singing musical Velcro that will stick to your brain till St. Swithin's Day. Singers Chimberly Carter and Markus Lloyd manage a couple of decent solos. And that's musical director Scott Eckert ably leading the upstage band and hiding, wisely, behind a huge Christmas tree.
There's a wisp of "story" that weaves the show's 43 songs together—each performer is granted his or her wish from Santa—but it all sounds as if the tunes were picked by flipping randomly through channel choices on an airline headset. The combinations can be cringe-making. Blending "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and "Sock It to Me, Baby" seems like an invitation to domestic abuse.
Then comes the first-act closer. The cast emerges in purple satin choir robes to launch into the Three Dog Night thing about Jeremiah, the bullfrog who "was a good friend of mine." Then suddenly they go into the other "Joy to the World," the religious one where "heaven and nature sing." They switch back and forth between pop song and Christmas carol. Maddeningly. Loudly. And they want everyone in the house to clap and sing along.
Joy to the world. The frog has come.