“This year’s Crumpet” is a phrase often heard in Wilmington’s theatre community, usually every fall. It is shorthand for the star of the year’s one-man show in David Sedaris’ “Santaland Diaries,” adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello. In the last decade, “Santaland Diaries” has become the Wilmington holiday tradition I most look forward to. I don’t have a little girl to take to see “The Nutcracker,” and frankly “A Christmas Carol” is pretty hard to stage in any way that is remotely still interesting to me.
When City Stage ended their long run of “Santaland Diaries”—which included memorable performances from many noted Wilmington actors (Cullen Moss, Jason Hatfield, Steve Vernon, Michael Granberry to name just a handful)—I felt a hole in my already depressing holiday season. However, 2015 sees its return, with Anthony Lawson and Holli Saperstein’s launch of a new theatre company, Panache Theatrical Productions. When they announced their inaugural season with a reboot of “Santaland Diaries,” I was aflutter with anticipation. Also, I had a little bit of concern, because, frankly the bar for that show has been set pretty high by some of its past performers.
Unlike many Christmas shows that turn on finding solace and companionship with family—or the Dickens’ classic about changing your entire self overnight—“Santaland Diaries” is about the realities of discovering when you become an adult in the world and must make adult decisions that are not always pleasant. It chronicles the first winter Sedaris spent in New York City, when the only gainful employment he could find was as an elf at Macy’s Santaland during the holidays. Lawson takes the part of Crumpet the elf, and in an hour and half monologue, intersperses his sardonic grumblings with songs from “The Not Ready For Christmas Carolers”—performed by Kaitlin Baden, Amber Sheets and Jamey Stone. He recounts his misadventures as an elf.
There is no way to avoid comparisons to past productions and performances because the show is just too well-known. Panache moved the venue from City Stage/ Level Five’s rooftop bar in the historic Masonic Temple Building to the Red Barn Studio Theatre on 3rd Street. The Red Barn seats around 50 patrons, significantly less than City Stage, and does not have a bar. Already, there is a more intimate experience of sitting next to a couple dozen close friends to watch the show. I mention the bar because there have been several Crumpets in years past who were heckled by audience members who had indulged in a bit too much Christmas cheer. There are times when the show felt like a stand-up routine, so when alcohol was added, for many it offered an irresistible combination.
The lobby of the Red Barn is decorated like Santaland, complete with a chair for pictures with a Santa and a sign saying Santa will be back shortly. When audiences walk into the theatre, they enter through a door marked as “Macy’s Breakroom.” This attention to detail really sets the mood for this “breakroom confessional” they’re about to witness.
When Hatfield performed Crumpet, we got an elf from the darkside: all anger and bluster. When a towering nearly 7-foot tall Justin Smith performed, he gave us the world’s tallest elf with a sight gag that never got old. Michael Brady played the show like he was recounting his worst job ever while getting high on his friend’s couch. Adam Poole played like he was lying his way through a ridiculous job interview. With Lawson, we white knuckle our way through the experience with him. It is part cautionary tale and part therapy. He’s not so much recounting a story as living through it.
I have to give Lawson this: It is pretty scary to get onstage for a show that many know so well, let alone try to make it a new experience again. Lawson genuinely makes the show a rediscovery. He rides the emotional waves of the script with buoyancy but also the desperation of a man realizing the only thing standing between him and starvation is an elf suit.
Obviously, great physical comedy is derived from the elf suit itself and Lawson’s relationship with the striped tights—which are in constant need of hiking up. It becomes a wonderful source of repetitious comedy. He’s not so much miserable as dazed and mildly confused as to how he has found himself in Santaland. Lawson manages to communicate not only the acerbic comedy of the script but also to find its truth.
“The Ho-Ho-Ho’s” of the City Stage productions became so legendary they started to outshine the Crumpets themselves. Clearly, the show is too short not to include musical interludes to add transitions and give the actor a chance to catch his breath (90 minutes of one person talking is taxing—Fidel Castro excepted). The Not Ready for Christmas Carolers were refreshingly different. Their rendition of “Feliz Navidad” (with Stone on the ukulele) is awesome and infectious. Actually, Stone is clearly the ham of the trio. He upstages everyone with his secret love for “Jingle Bells,” and it is pretty cute. Yet, all of them sing beautifully; Baden and Sheets will just melt the heart with such haunting voices. In the next breath, they will turn around and make audiences laugh until they cry. It’s great.
Anyone needing a renewed acquaintance with this show, or have long planned to see it should make it to Red Barn over the next few weekends. The show is fun, funny and not too sappy. Add in great performances that make it fresh and exciting, and it is clear that Panache can claim a very auspicious beginning.