BWW Review: Two VERY Different Christmas Treats at Pittsburgh Public (PITTSBURGH LIGHTS AND LEGENDS) and Arcade Comedy Theater (THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS)
Ah, the holiday season. Whoop de doo, dickety dock, whatever else it is Andy Williams babbles on about. Part of the fun of Christmas entertainment is seeing old things again, and seeing the new things that pop up each year to compete for a chance to become a classic, a standard, even that coveted position of UNDISPUTED HOLIDAY TRADITION. In terms of Christmas movies, the last entry to truly become a standard was Elf in 2003. Christmas music has been stagnant for even longer, since Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You" in 1994 (unless you consider the songs from Frozen to be Christmassy, which I don't). As for theatre? You've got your Christmas Carol, your Christmas Story, occasional upstarts like the Grinch and Charlie Brown and maybe one or two stagings of the Greatest Story Ever Told (a title which refers either to the Nativity story or the original Star Wars trilogy, depending on who you ask). But this year, Pittsburgh offers up two very promising new holiday shows, both of which have the legs to stick around for years to come. Buckle up, folks, this one is a twofer: for the first time in my entire career at BroadwayWorld, I'm doing a two-in-one, compare-and-contrast review.
In the red corner, cheered on by an enormous and enthusiastic, Christmas-sweater-wearing audience from the Greatest Generation down to the generation too young to know what Fortnite is, is Pittsburgh Public Theatre's Yinzer Yuletide: Pittsburgh Lights and Legends. Hosted by documentarian and local hero Rick Sebak, the ninety-minute show is a tongue-in-cheek recreation of the classic Perry Como holiday specials, with guests, charmingly overscripted banter, jokes, musical numbers and surprises. I don't want to give away too many of the little treats along the way, so let's just say that this show is a delight.
From an infectiously enthusiastic performance by theatre legend Lenora Nemetz, dancing and singing her way through the maniacal Streisand arrangement of "Jingle Bells," to juggler O'Ryan The O'Mazing managing to do what I can only call "anti-juggling" with a suitcase, all the way through songs, filmed segments and crowd-pleasing sentiment, the Lights and Legends Show is almost certain to be a yearly event based on the way everyone ate it up. I won't lie, I had a big, kid-at-Christmas smile on my face the whole time.
But I had a very different, much more Grinchy, smile at Arcade Theatre later that night. In the blue corner, cheered on by a crowd of affably tipsy partiers, cynical millennials and college students, it's The Night Before Christmas, a one-act play by Anthony Neilson. Here, again, I don't want to give away too many surprises, so all I'll say is this: it's Christmas in London, 1995, and two lowlifes (John Feightner and Justin Vetter) and their... friend (Emily Welsh) have cornered an intruder in The Warehouse where one of them works. This intruder (Vanessa St. Clair) claims to be a Christmas elf. Things get very, VERY weird from there.
Make no mistake, this show is filthy, cynical, obscene, explicit and absolutely hilarious- don't bring the kids or an especially conservative grandma, but don't you dare miss it. The tiny cast is fantastic across the board, from John Feightner's extremely convnicing accent work to Justin Vetter's jaded melancholy. Both of them play wonderfully off Emily Welsh's scabrous Fleabag-esque working girl, easily the grittiest character in a Christmas comedy since Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa. If the cast has a star, though, it's Vanessa St. Clair, whose performance as the intruder starts silly, gets bigger and bigger, then just when you think things can't get weirder, they do. Her big-eyed, childlike physicality and too-earnest-to-stand Peter Pannish voice call to mind one of the most memorable performances in indie comedy theatre history: Lauren Lopez as Draco Malfoy in A Very Potter Musical. Only Quentin Tarantino could do more with a character who spends the entire evening tied to a chair.
Now here we go. The points have been counted, and the winner is, badabadabada... both of them? It's a tie? Really?!?! Okay, obviously I wasn't actually going to make these shows fight to the death until only one survived, it's Christmas. But the truth is, I liked both of these shows for very different, almost diametrically opposed, reasons. We need our sweet with our salty this time of year, and Pittsburgh's vibrant theatre scene knows how to provide both.