By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The title of WaterTower Theatre's revival of Rockin' Christmas Party is missing its "g" for a reason. Throughout the two-plus hours of singin' and dancin', you'll keep thinkin' to yourself, "Gee, what does that song have to do with Christmas?" and "Gee, why are those ladies wearing Conehead wigs and giant boxes on their heads?" Maybe also, "Gee, is this the best they could find for a holiday musical revue?"
Yes, apparently, since WaterTower has done Rockin' Christmas Party as a year-ender on and off for a decade. Some of the current cast was in the Addison theater's first production of it, back when a few of the 45 jukebox numbers sung in the show were still fairly fresh off the charts, songs like the B-52's "Love Shack" and karaoke favorites "Lady Marmalade" and "Hot, Hot, Hot."
What these and other last-century pop, rock, country and soul tunes are doing in a Christmas-themed show, Lord only knows. They also sing "Movin' on Up" from The Jeffersons and channel Priscilla Queen of the Desert with a disco medley of "It's Raining Men" and "I Love the Nightlife." Most special Christmas pageants lack sexy black detective imagery, but this show has the theme from Shaft. And in the country section of Rockin' Christmas Party are somber renditions of "Ode to Billy Joe" and "Harper Valley PTA."
It's a snow globe of hits heard yesteryear, liked for a while and hated now, shaken up and spilled across a stage decked with tinsel, a 20-foot tree and other tacky Yuletide trappings. The stars are six of Dallas' most gifted musical theater pros — Denise Lee, Sara Shelby-Martin, Jenny Thurman, Amy Stevenson, Gary Lynn Floyd and Markus Lloyd — with the five-piece onstage band led by Scott A. Eckert.
They try desperately to make it fun and often succeed, but not often enough. The show grows long toward about song 25, and sometimes the singers appear to be just going through the motions. Speaking of which, audience participation is unavoidable. They exhort everyone to stand up and join in semaphoring the Village People's "YMCA."
Go ahead and let your brain try to suss out the connections to Christmas in this crazy-quilt set list (really, go ahead, because there's not much else to think about during all the nonsense). It's raining men? OK, let them be wise men. Shepherds watched their flocks by night — that means they loved the nightlife, didn't they? "YMCA" — at least there's "Christian" implied in the title.
But when they get to "Brick House" and the limbo contest — yes, you risk being dragged away from your seat and down to the stage to be humiliated for lack of spinal flexibility — give up and give in. Rockin' Christmas Party is theatrical ADD, jumping from genre to genre and song to song every whipstitch. They eventually get to "Jingle Bells" and the Mel Torme ballad about chestnuts roasting on an open fire, but three-quarters of it is more "Play That Funky Music, White Boy" and "Get up Offa that Thing." The performers, four of them white folks, don Afro wigs the size of beach balls for a tribute to the Jackson Five. They wail "Bridge over Troubled Water" followed by a rendition of "Silent Night" that goes on so long it's as if the needle got stuck on a scratched 45. This show is elevator music making stops in Santa's workshop, Bethlehem, Motown, Nashville and Studio 54. All you can do is go along for the ride.
If they're going to stick with Rockin' in the future, however — and please, Dear Baby Jesus, hear our prayer for new and better musical revues to honor thy birth — they need to unstick it from the past. Created by Austin theater director Dave Steakley, directed at WaterTower by Terry Martin, with "musical staging" by John de los Santos, the show's playlist now sports too much rickety rock and more moss than mistletoe. It needs some Gaga and Bieber and Buble, maybe even, dare I say it, some holiday Groban (shiver) to re-energize it. The scripted parts of the revue, about Santa Claus giving each singer his or her "dream show," were never any good. Now even the performers grimace at the dumb bits of dialogue between numbers.
WaterTower's singers, bless their sweaty heads, power through it with charm and pizzazz. Floyd and Lloyd dance their keisters off, with Lloyd tossing in knee drops and a back flip. The girls stick with vocal gymnastics, with Lee tearing up "I Will Survive." (And she will, too, including this nutty show.) Shelby-Martin and Thurman are throaty belters who can also clown. Not much choice since costume designer Michael A. Robinson, this town's top creator of stage-wear insulting to actresses of all shapes and sizes, has put them in short, ugly velvet tents with big bows flopping over their bellies.
Extra props go to the ladies for bopping nonstop under wobbly wigs that could double as hairy traffic cones. Poor Stevenson, who was having voice problems opening night, navigates the stage peering out from under a black braided fake-hair dunce cap. Robinson also puts her in a frock that resembles a glittery shower curtain, with sickly green boa feathers and sparkly stars glued to it. If the Grinch were on Project Runway, this is the dress he'd make.
Must be great to work with puppets. They're never late to rehearsals. No smoke breaks. And in the hands of the master puppeteers of Kathy Burks Theatre of Puppetry Arts — Douglass Burks, Sally Fiorello, Becky Burks Keenan and Ziggy Renner — the stars always come through with flawless performances.
The Burks troupe's holiday show, The Nutcracker, now playing in the Studio space at Dallas Children's Theater, is as fine a way for families to spend 100 non-shopping minutes together this season as there is. B. Wolf's adaptation of the story begins with the composer explaining how he was inspired to write the ballet score from the rhythms of a train ride. Then things veer off into whimsical vignettes, including a graceful poodle Sugar Plum Fairy, accompanied by Tchaikovsky's lush, twinkly waltzes.
An array of gorgeous rod puppets appear on a classic "black theater" stage (the puppeteers, clad head to toe in black velvet, blend into the background), with an extra screen for shadow puppetry. Kids in the audience giggle right on cue when the tiny puppet mice invade Clara's Christmas tree. The Nutcracker Prince takes Clara on a soaring sleigh ride into the magical world of Spanish and Russian dancers. It's aah-inspiring, beginning to end.