BWW Review: CHRISTMAS IN COLUMBUS Tries to Raise the Cheer-o-Meter
Full disclosure here: It's probably not the wisest advice to trust a review of Christmas show from someone who records HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS and leaves off the last five minutes so the Whos down on Whoville don't get their toys back.
When it comes to Christmas shows, Columbus gets treated to standard fare of THE CHRISTMAS CAROLE, THE NUTCRACKER, THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGAENT EVER and BABES IN TOYLAND every December. Credit the Short North Stage for trying to bring something original to the Capital City. After presenting the world premiere of KRAMPUS, A YULETIDE TALE last year, SNS presents another premiere, the locally written CHRISTMAS IN COLUMBUS, at the Garden Theater to liven up the holidays.
The show opened Dec. 8 and runs through Dec. 18 at the Garden Theater's main stage (located at 1187 N. High Street in Columbus).
Written by director and choreographer Dionysia Williams and Jackie Comisar, the show centers on Gideon, one of Santa's elves who misses the Polar Express and becomes stranded in Columbus. Gideon (Zach Fretag) has to rely on a Columbus family to help him find his way back home.
Fretag is a ball of hyper activity as Gideon. Imagine 30 Rock's Kenneth Parcell playing Will Ferrell's role in ELF. He's strongly supported by the Holiday family of Chris Rusen (Chris Holiday) and Jackie Comisar (Jackie Holiday) and their young children Charlie (Cam Hollard) and Violet (Violet Hicks) as well as their college-aged daughter Maggie (Danielle Bessler). The show also challenges the traditional view of St. Nick by casting DeAndre Smith, an African American, as Santa.
Along the way, the Holiday family shows Gideon a Columbus-style Christmas, hitting the city's highpoints - THE NUTCRACKER at the Ohio Theatre, zoo lights at the Columbus Zoo, and a tree lighting ceremony at Easton Mall. Although it borrows heavily from ELF, the script, earns bonus points for a reference to visiting to Santa Claus at Lazarus and for reimaging the song "Manhattan in December" into "Columbus in December" with references to the Horseshoe and High Street covered in snow.
A 56-member cast weaves its way through a 24-tune catalog of familiar Christmas songs ("Silver and Gold," "We Need A Little Christmas") and newer ones ("SparkleJollyTwinkleJingley from ELF and "The Happy Elf" by Harry Connick Jr.). The cleverest of the lot was Straight No Chaser's "Text Me Merry Christmas" - "You'll be far away and I'll be all alone/So please remember this December to fully charge your phone."
In addition to the singing, the 90-minute features a talented troupe of dancers, Sally Squires in "The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" and Megan Shepston Overly, Heidi Kok, Olivia Ward, Maggie Prosser, Shellee Younkin, Amanda Short, Maria Dalanno, Katie Wagner and Sarah Tuohy.
Amid the festive frolic, there were parts of the show that go together as well as spaghetti and maple syrup. In most holiday shows, a family struggles to find "Christmas spirit" because of some sort of setback whether it is Uncle Billy's poor money management in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE or global warming in FROSTY RETURNS. In this show, Jackie Holiday explains to her elementary school children the reason why they haven't decorated the house, set up a tree or bought any presents because they were too busy with work parties. When Charlie asks his mom what she wants for Christmas, she gives him the lengthy list described in "Santa Baby." The self-centered attitude is sad but also painfully accurate in the season of giving.
Secondly, Jeni's Ice Cream, one of the shows sponsors, gets an eye-rolling product placement in the middle of the show. However, I would've given the show bonus points if the song had rhymed "Christmas tree" with "now listeria free."
Detractors aside, Short North Stage should be commended for continuing to take chances with its shows and its inventive storytelling. The show should also be lauded for incorporating Hanukah and Kwanzaa into the show. CHRISTMAS IN COLUMBUS caused only a slight bump in my Spirit-O-Meter but then again this heart is probably six sizes too small.
CHRISTMAS IN COLUMBUS will be performed 8 p.m. Dec. 9, 15-17, 3 p.m. Dec. 9 and 18 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 18 at the Garden Theater (1187 N. High Street in Columbus). Call 614-725-4042 for information.