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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Forbidden Xmas (2005) A Great Farewell Gift from The Empty Space to its Fremont Home

Also see David's reviews of No, No, Noel and Sleeping Beauty

'Tis a pity that the current incarnation of writer/director Richard Gray’s Forbidden Xmas will be the one and only version of this perennial holiday show seen at the Empty Space’s longtime Fremont neighborhood home (the Empty Space becomes Seattle University’s theatre in residence on Capitol Hill in 2006). Not only does Fremont lose the company, but the way that scenic designer Jeffrey Cook has refashioned the house (with cabaret table seating in the front, spilling right out onto the lap of the stage) gives the show an ideal cabaret cum theatre feeling, which is exactly what the show is.

Starting as a one-night benefit some 13 years ago, the show’s longtime home was the downtown Crepe de Paris, before spawning concurrent productions in Tacoma and in a run out version at holiday functions. Just before the planned 2004 Empty Space run of FX was to go into rehearsal, the company temporarily shut its doors to head off a dire funding issue. But the Space rose from the near ashes, and Forbidden Xmas is in grand, if somewhat overstuffed, form this year.

The show is song/sketch based, genial nose-thumbing at all things Seattle, and about half of each year’s show is newly penned by the prodigious Mr. Gray while the remainder is “best of” material from the past.  This writer’s favorite segment every year is a lengthy “Cash Cow” medley that ridicules the excessive theatre productions that run in Seattle through the holidays. In his best Gerard Alessandrini mode, Gray this year tackles Village Theatre’s Cats with a gut busting “I See Kitties” (set to Leonard Bernstein’s tune for “I Feel Pretty”) and the quandary faced by the 5th Avenue Theatre when they had to plug in a quickie mounting of The Sound of Music to supplant the postponed Dr. Dolittle tour, as well as the impending return of the Mamma Mia! tour at the Paramount, and even a little rib poking at FX itself. A new running gag about finding a mascot for Fremont is also clever fun, and so many of the returning items such as “Steve Pool, The Weatherman,” “Food Court Love,” “U.P.S. Bell Carol,” and “Dickens Carolers” possess the kind of familiarity that breeds smiles, rather than contempt. And the revival of a darkly comic number about Boeing layoffs in “Kent” set to music from Rent is well timed, given the release of the film version.

Even someone as gifted as Richard Gray misfires occasionally, and here it happens with a lengthy act two spoof on the Teatro Zinzanni, which becomes the redneck-laden “Teatro Nisqually,” and defies Gray’s talented and tireless cast's best efforts to breath holiday helium into it. The show feels about ten minutes too long, and that’s just about the length of this one-joke segment.

The balance of the evening, however, is a deliciously airborne effort, thanks in no small part to the cast and musicians. Vickilee Wohlbach is one of Seattle’s enduring treasures, with the ability to have you guffawing one minute and wiping away a tear the next.  Her Clara in the show-capping “Coffee Grinder Suite” is zany perfection, while her duet with Eric Ankrim on Gray’s bittersweet original song “In Her/His Eyes” is warmer than any chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Ankrim, in his first outing as an FX ensemble member, raises his lovely tenor voice confidently throughout and has an easygoing flair for light comedy. Carolyn Magoon is an old hand at this sort of comic insanity by now, and really does herself proud vocally, wailing on Gray’s Bon Star Blues. Sure, the Bon Marche is now Macy’s but don’t you question Ms. Magoon’s storefront electric star for singing the original name. John Patrick Lowrie’s robust and flamboyantly bigger-than-life style makes the perfect fourth in the quartet of cast members, but kudos too for the grand job done by musical director/pianist Faith Seeto who gets two vocal spotlights as well, the perennial “Nordstrom Pianist” charmer and a piece of hilarious special material where she (jokingly) questions being assigned to play only Asian characters because of her ethnicity. Likewise, expert percussionist Dan Tierney is enjoyable in his onstage moments as well.

As previously mentioned, Jeffrey Cook’s set design makes the Empty Space a perfect place to see Forbidden Xmas, and it is a colorful, ingenious and quick change friendly one to boot. Doris Black’s costumes are colorfully comic creations, and Nathan Kahler’s sound design insures you will be able to understand all of Gray’s witty words. Get thee to Fremont for this feast of a holiday fun fest, and to toast the Space’s tenure there, while we wish them well in their move to their new digs.

Forbidden Xmas runs through December 23 at The Empty Space, 3509 Fremont Ave. N., Seattle. For more information call (206) 547-7500, or go on-line at www.emptyspace.org.



- David-Edward Hughes



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