By: Dec. 04, 2019

A holiday classic meets reality show parody in Pride Films & Plays' AMERICA'S BEST OUTCAST TOY, but the end result is a bit of a mixed bag. It wants to be nostalgic without being sentimental. In its current state, it just doesn't work.

The Misfit Toys (of a certain copyrighted red-nosed reindeer fame) are all competing on the reality show of the title --a mash up of just about every program in the genre from the granddaddy of them all ("Survivor") to more modern entries ("RuPaul's Drag Race" and "The Great British Bake Off). You -as the audience-vote at the end to crown the winner.

The parody is predictable and derivative, but the engaging ensemble nearly manages to salvage things.

Haylie Kinsler is fierce and admirable as Jackie, a toy who literally thinks outside of the box. Her feminism and refusal to subscribe to gender roles (why does it always have to be a jack-in-the-box) easily makes her a hero to root for.

Julia Rowley is also very funny as Ashley, the doll with some deep-seated abandonment issues that has left her with a negative sense of self-worth. Danny Ackman has a few nice moments as the lovable, spotted elephant Spotty. Josh Kemper is likable as the naïve and lonely cowboy whose only companion is his ostrich. Anna Blanchard is also sweet as the tiny-voiced mouse Squeak.

Donterrio Johnson's direction keeps things moving. His choreography also makes smart use of the stage space. Jos N. Banks' costumes smartly blend real-world attire with hints of the stop-motion animated origins

The music and lyrics by Cindy O'Connor and Larry Toddy Cousineau (respectively) are well structured and hummable. The pair are some of the best musical writing teams currently working in the city.

The trouble is with the show's premise and Cousineau's book. Here is a holiday show devoid of nearly all holiday sentiment. "The holidays are a drag," the delightful Riley Smith sings as one of the reality show judges (a drag queen in the vein of RuPaul albeit much, much bitchier). That's pretty much it.

In the original 1964 classic "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," the Misfit Toys' home was a mythical land where all people who do not confirm to standards of society are welcomed, accepted and even celebrated. It was a place they all ended up after being unloved, unwanted and rejected by society at large. They have gone on to become queer icons and countless articles and academic papers have analyzed the original program through an LGBTQ prism.

The fear of abandonment from family, friends and community is sadly still within the realm of reality even today of most LGTBQ kids. To have created a family and a home, these toys were never misfits, but rather heroes.

How do you explain why any of them would allow the world at large to once again debase and judge them or anyone else in their "family" as being less than worthy of respect, attention and/or love?

Cousineau's solution is to write them as if they are complete strangers. There is no talk of shared history or familiarity. No gentle ribbing or teasing like in most families. No attempt to catch up and apologize for not staying in touch. There is no sense of a reunion at all.

Any lingering nostalgia you might have for these characters has to be checked at the door. What are they all doing there? Why are they voluntarily allowing themselves to be judged by the society that once rejected them? It's unclear. If there was the musical standard "I want/I Dream" motivational song in the mix, it was missed.

The lack of backstory or motivation is most telling in Schmermie (Patrick Regner). Regner is charming and can belt out a song, but his character lacks any really conviction. The failed toymaker who once dreamed of being a dentist is now the host of a presumably successful reality show. One has better odds of becoming a dentist than one does a successful television host. Was his one true dream denied or was it simply deferred (and, if so, why)? What fork in the road lead him to this place? Give him a bit more of an edge and some meanness and you've got the makings of an 11 o'clock showstopper complete with a Scrooge-like transformation.

O'Connor and Cousineau are fighting a losing battle against the baggage audiences members familiar with the original holiday classic come in with. We are all too aware the characters' previous struggles and those painful life lessons learned to just accept that any of them are willing to forgo a sense of family for some cold hard cash, some cheap, dime store baubles and another 15 minutes of fame.

And while the cynic in me says there is probably a fair amount of truth to the notion that many among us would quickly abandoned friends and family for fame, fortune or gold, my inner queer child just doesn't want to hear anything of it.

At least not during the holidays.

AMERICA'S BEST OUTCAST TOY runs through Jan. 12, 2020 at the Broadway, Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway. Tickets $30-$40. 866.811.4111.