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 seventh 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 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 this year's production of CHRISTMAS ON THE ROCKS combines old friends and a new face (who is, in fact, an "old friend" himself). Ted Lange, who played the friendly bartender (and sometimes matchmaker), Isaac, on the classic TV Show, THE LOVE BOAT, joins the cast of CHRISTMAS ON THE ROCKS as, you guessed it, the bartender (renamed Isaac as a nod to his previous role) and fits in like he has been tending that bar for years. He patiently listens while each of the characters arrives, tells their tale and exits into the snowy, Christmas Eve landscape. Mr. Lange does what Isaac does best, listen and dole out 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. They even found a few ways to hilariously nod to his past life on the cruise ship. Randy Harrison returns for his second year as 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. Harrison once again delivers nuanced performances in each of his scenes. His Hermey the Elf is absolutely spot-on, and in what is one of his funniest bits of the night, tells the bartender (through a perfectly captured nasal accent) the sordid tale of his off and on friendship with a certain red nosed reindeer. In contrast, his other scenes are more subtle and sweet, capturing a judgmental Tiny Tim and a Charlie Brown that, though grown up is recognizably himself. As the female visitors, Jenn Harris is, once again, absolutely hilarious. She brings an intense energy to each of her characters, from the paranoid Zuzu Bailey 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 Matt Wilkas) once again 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. He once again conveys the warmth and satisfaction that only a familiar Christmas tale can bring. Michael Schweikardt's run-down bar is like an old familiar friend. 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 (with a nice surprise for Mr. Lange at the end of the show), and John Lasiter and Michael Miceli's Lighting and Sound design work well. The livestreaming video for Ms. Harris' frenetic webcast as Frosty's forgotten creator, Karen, continues to be a highlight.
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.
All photos by Lanny Nagler
MID PHOTO 1: Randy Harrison
MID PHOTO 2: Jenn Harris