- Christmas sneer: Holiday Hotline suffers from its scattershot scenes.
If you haven't noticed, the loony right-wing "war on Christmas" continues unabated, with chicken-hawk media generals such as Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity even getting in the face of their beloved president . . . for the sin of mailing out a "Happy Holidays" card from the White House. Surely some low-level heads in the West Wing stationery office will be lopped off, in deference to the fundamentalist Christian Mafia, which brooks no divergence from their straight and narrow agenda of intolerance fueled by fulsome outrage.
Of course, if O'Reilly or Hannity ever stumbled upon the intersection of Detroit Avenue and West 65th Street, they would think they had discovered ground zero of their fever-dream war. At Cleveland Public Theatre, Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge and The Santaland Diaries are taking their own distinctive potshots at Christmas shibboleths. And across the parking lot at the Orthodox Theatre, there's a presentation of the original musical Holiday Hotline. Presented by Detroit Avenue Arts, this eclectic collection of satirical Christmas-centered sketches, songs, and commercial parodies shows potential, but has more loose ends than Aunt Tilda's homemade cableknit sweater.
Satire of any kind is difficult to pull off, especially when it takes aim at a target as rich as Christmas. The tendency is to blast away at all the low-hanging fruit (excess commercialism, family stress, seasonal depression) and never develop a unique perspective on this King Kong of national holidays. And while Michael Sepesy (book and lyrics) and Linda Eisenstein (music and lyrics) score some direct hits, their significant talents are diluted by too many disconnected scenes.
It all starts with a promising premise, as three operators field calls at a holiday switchboard from folks who are encountering problems (one man complains that he was touched by an angel -- inappropriately). The title song, a nicely polished show tune, works well as an opener. But the hotline idea almost immediately disappears, as a parade of other scenes takes us from a pissed-off store clerk to Frosty the Snowman as a male prostitute to a bummed-out Jesus trying to celebrate his birthday. Traveling at light speed across time and musical styles, the show builds little momentum, since the center of attention keeps shifting. (Part of the reason may be that Sepesy and Eisenstein have been workshopping a number of the individual scenes in venues where artists are intent on supporting each other. This often results in audience reactions that skew encouragingly positive while not offering a view of how the entire show hangs together.)
Sepesy, who clearly has a delightfully demented view of the holiday season, tends to rely on obvious and reflexive hostility instead of drilling deeper into his melancholia. In an extended scene at a department store, a clerk (played with twitching desperation by Andrew Narten) is beset by unpleasant customers. But his comments -- "Everyone in this store is stupid and ugly" -- are too unimaginative to be interesting and too self-pitying to be empathetic. And when a Christmas fairy grants him the ability to say anything to his tormentors, without consequence, all we get is tired burlesque repartee. Customer: "I expect a little service!" Clerk: "I'll give you as little service as I can." Ba-da-bump.
The music ranges from pop to opera, but beyond the title song and an engaging tune called "Mandatory Merriment," Eisenstein's melodies seldom linger in the mind for more than a second. There is a torchy number titled "A Toast on Christmas Eve," however, sung by Denise Astorino with passion, if not total vocal control, that could be a gem with a little deft editing.
Fortunately the six talented performers, each of whom plays multiple roles, manage to make a number of individual scenes click amusingly. Displaying the tremulous spirit of Don Knotts, Mary Ann Elder is a stitch as Mrs. MacDougall, a woman seeking help for her holiday DTs, who runs screaming from the doctor's office at the sight of a therapeutic elf (though Sepesy and director Mindy Childress overwork the screeching exit in subsequent bits). Also excellent is Kim Aldrich-Ceja, a feathery disaster as a store's credit-card-pushing chicken and as a poignantly naive little Christmas tree who thinks she's still loved, even as she's being hauled to the dump.
Childress keeps the pace brisk within scenes, but unaccountably permits many sketches that cry for blackout endings to simply peter out in full stage light, accentuating some weak punch lines and forcing the actors to shuffle off awkwardly. And some cute ideas, such as Kevin the Kwanzaa Moose and the three Wise Men on a shopping excursion ("Don't get the myrrh, get My Little Pony") are funny, but leave some comic veins untapped. If Christmas is about wishes, we wish for a shorter and more focused Hotline.