Big Dawg Productions winds up their season with a wonderful holiday show: “Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some)” by John K. Alvarez, Michael Carleton and James FitzGerald. Directed by David Lee Kent, who is apparently the cousin of the famed Yukon Cornelius—Cornelius directed “Santaland Diaries” for many years at City Stage—the show creates a fabulous holiday romp through Christmas traditions.
Anthony Lawson has adapted yet another production of “The Christmas Carol” for the stage this winter. Just as Steve Vernon begins the opening monologue, ”Marley was dead…”, Randy Davis, the third member of the troupe, begins a rebellion. They have been doing this show most of their lives because it is the traditional Christmas production, but the actors want something else. Instead of doing “A Christmas Carol,” they decide to do every Christmas story ever in 90 minutes. Yep, it’s a ripoff of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) premise of three guys doing an entire genre really quickly (RSC, actually, has a Christmas show of its own: “The Ultimate Christmas (abridged).”
The premise is really cute and works its way through “Frosty the Snowman,” lounge lizard acts of the ‘50s and ‘60s, “Miracle on 34th Street,” “Twas The Night before Christmas,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “How The Grinch Stole Christmas,” holiday traditions from around the world, and, of course, that most famous Gustolph the Green Nose Raingoat, a copyright-infringement-free allusion to a popular story.
Outside of the periodic resurrections of The Comically Impaired, “Wilmington’s most retired improve troupe,” it is pretty rare to get to see Vernon onstage. That having been said, someone is going to point out that he was just in “Death Bed” and in Susan Auten’s fundraiser “Baring It 2,” so let’s just say he’s getting a lot of exposure right now (though it has felt like a Vernon drought for a while). Frankly, it had been so long since I saw Vernon act, I almost forgot what a good performer he is. Almost. Vernon plays the actor committed to “A Christmas Carol.” He continues throughout the show to try and get everyone back on track with the expected program. He also is assigned to be the cynic, who, shall we say, attempts to explain the physics behind the reality of Christmas magic to the would-be adult Randy Davis.
Davis, as a wide-eyed innocent, should be a difficult pill to swallow, but he actually sells it really well. His rendition of Linus’ monologue from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is one of the best surprises of the show. He does the lisp without overdoing it, radiating inner peace, and holding a blanket as a talisman. It’s all there.
Then there is Lawson, the sort-of middle ground between the two: He’s half peacemaker and half-instigator. Handing out random bits of holiday trivia and moving everyone along in this bizarre journey through “BHCs” (Beloved Holiday Classics). In real life, Lawson is a walking encyclopedia of pop-culture and assorted trivia. So, somehow, this character is not far of a stretch, except that onstage he’s enjoying pushing Vernon’s buttons far more than the real-life Lawson would. While Lawson’s jokes are better when he’s writing them, as seen in “The Bard’s Broads,” the show series he wrote for TheatreNOW, he is a consummate performer who can sell any quip with charm and conviction.
All three men are a delight onstage. I couldn’t stop laughing, especially when all 5 feet 6 inches of Vernon busted out with a wonderful Jimmy Stewart voice in Act II. It’s amazing how you hear the voice and you search for a string bean to hang it on, but, no.
One of my favorite tropes that Vernon utilizes onstage is a hybrid of the Jack Benny Stare. Rather than laughing at his own jokes or others, he half turns to the audience in silence, which heightens things even more. This sort of comedy has to be fast-paced and high-energy for it to work—which means all three performers have to be very tuned into each other and firing quickly. Just to drive that point home, they do recite the holiday version of Abbot and Costello’s, “Who’s on first?”
They came really close to covering all the Christmas stories ever and hitting the high notes of the ones they mentioned (I was especially pleased that Max, the dog, was acknowledge in The Grinch sequence). “Santaland Diaries,” a long-time holiday tradition at City Stage was a high point of my holiday and I have mourned its demise. If Big Dawg is planning this show as an annual offering, it could go a long way toward filling the void left by the retirement of David Sederis’ recounting of an elf working at Macy’s during the holiday season.
Mr. Kent and technical director Audrey McCrummen have put together a minimal but quite delightful world for these actors to romp about: a large bed stage right for Scrooge to sleep in, a terribly tacky white aluminum tree, a la “A Charlie Brown Christmas” stage left, and periodical props and costume pieces for the actors. Upstage center, a large, wrapped gift package reveals itself as a dresser, whose drawers contain some necessary parts, including a bell for the game-show sequence. Then, the dresser transforms into a desk and rounds out a truly mobile and versatile set. Speaking of the game show: Be prepared for some audience interaction. There is no fourth wall in this show, and several audience members are pulled up onstage.
The footnote to the title might also be every Christmas carol ever sung (except oddly enough, “Blue Christmas”) in an arrangement that creates some unexpected undertones. It will make you question what you thought you knew about holiday music.
The show was sold out the night I attended. In fact, extra chairs were procured in order to seat us. Judging by the shear number of Christmas shows currently produced here, there is an insatiable appetite for all things Yuletide. Big Dawg has hit a winner with “Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some),” and audiences know it. Get your tickets quickly or you won’t be able to!
Every Christmas Story Ever Told
Cape Fear Playhouse
613 Castle Street
Thurs.-Sun., Dec. 11 – 21, 8 p.m.; Sun. matinee: 3 p.m.