BWW Review: CHRISTMAS ON THE ROCKS at TheaterWorks
Christmas is a season of traditions. From the decorations that have their certain place on the mantel, to the cookies like grandma used to make, people thrive on the familiar during the holidays. This goes for films and TV specials as well. Who doesn't pause to see if George Bailey will save the savings and loan, if Ralphie will actually get his Red Ryder BB Gun, or if Rudolph will finally prove his red nose can do great things. No matter how many viewings, there is something about the characters of these beloved Christmas programs that feels familiar and right. But have you ever wondered what happened to these larger than life characters after their time in the red and green spotlight? These are the questions that TheaterWorks in Hartford hilariously tackles in CHRISTMAS ON THE ROCKS.
CHRISTMAS ON THE ROCKS, a show conceived and directed by TheaterWorks artistic director, Rob Ruggiero, has become a tradition in and of itself. The show, which is now in its fifth year performing for Hartford audiences, takes a simple concept and raises it to hilarious proportions. The setting is a watering hole that has seen better days, somewhere in America on Christmas Eve. The aging bartender sets up for what is sure to be a slow evening. But the evening is anything but ordinary. One after another, the bar is visited by characters from those beloved films and TV specials I mentioned before. From Ralphie ("You'll shoot your eye out") Parker of A Christmas Story to Clara with her favorite Nutcracker, these characters, now all grown up, swoop in, and, often with a twist, hilariously share the twisted tales of what they have been up to for the last few decades.
Something that makes CHRISTMAS ON THE ROCKS unique is that each of its seven scenes is penned by a different playwright including John Cariani (ALMOST MAINE), Jeffrey Hatcher (TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE), Theresa Rebeck (MAURITIUS), Edwin Sanchez (LA BELLA FAMILIA), and Jacques Lamarre (RAGING SKILLET), who penned two of the scenes. Each of these writers add their own spin on the familiar stories (and characters) of the Christmas season.
The cast of CHRISTMAS ON THE ROCKS is small, but mighty. Tom Bloom makes his TheaterWorks debut as the wise bartender who patiently listens while each of these characters arrives, tells their tale and exits into the snowy, Christmas Eve landscape. He has a Midwestern sensibility about him and even gives off a Jimmy Stewart vibe as he pours drinks and passes along sage advice to these familiar friends. He never lets the insane situation he finds himself in phase him, and often finds ways to calm and advise even the most frantic of visitors. Matt Wilkas plays all the male patrons including Ralphie, Hermey the Elf (Rudolph's closeted "Dentist" friend), Tiny Tim ("God Bless Us Everyone"), and a certain yellow-shirted blockhead. Mr. Wilkas brings each of the characters to life in a unique and hilarious way. His Charlie Brown is a perfect mix of self-loathing and aggravation and his Hermey the Elf is over-the-top and fabulous. As the female visitors, Jenn Harris is absolutely hilarious. She brings an intense energy to each of her characters, from the paranoid Zuzu Bailey (in a new scene this year written by Jacques Lamarre) to the hilariously fraught (and limber) Clara. But it is as Karen, the little girl who created Frosty the Snowman, that Ms. Harris shines the most. That scene (written by Ms. Harris and Mr. Wilkas) is comedy gold, and the highlight of the evening.
From a creative perspective, CHRISTMAS ON THE ROCKS is simple, but effective. Rob Ruggiero's direction and vision for the show is clear and uncomplicated. With this being the 5th year staging the show, he conveys the warmth and satisfaction that only a familiar Christmas tale can bring. Michael Schweikardt's run-down bar is convincingly past-its-prime, with nice touches and appropriate décor (albeit mocked by Not-so-Tiny Tim). Alejo Vietti's costumes capture the familiar essence of each character, allowing the audience to immediately recognize them as soon as they walk into the bar, and John Lasiter and Michael Miceli's Lighting and Sound design work well. Worth noting is the effective use of livestreaming video for Ms. Harris' aforementioned frenetic webcast as Frosty's forgotten creator, Karen.
CHRISTMAS ON THE ROCKS runs at TheaterWorks in Hartford, CT through December 23. TheaterWorks is located at 233 Pearl Street, Hartford, CT 06103. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4:00 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 and 6:30 p.m. For more information call 860-527-7838 or go to theaterworkshartford.com.
MID PHOTO: Matthew Wilkas
Photos by RJ LaRussa and Lanny Nagler