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The Holiday Guys in Happy Merry Hanu-Mas

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Marc Kudisch and Jeffry Denman.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Top talent is the most thrilling theatrical present there is, and given how much of it they display in their show at the York Theatre Company, Happy Merry Hanu-Mas, Jeffry Denman and Marc Kudisch might as well complete their costumes by putting big red bows on their heads. The Broadway stalwarts, styling themselves here as "The Holiday Guys," are delivering on exactly what the quirky title of their energetic evening promises: a fusing of prominent Christian and Jewish winter celebrations into one season-sational delight.

Although this sometimes explodes into irreverent silliness—the mashup of "O Hanukkah" and "O Christmas Tree" into a "dueling-banjos" style sing-off is the best example of this—mostly it's just an excuse to have an old-fashioned good time with performers who seem to long to deliver nothing but. And because the tone is set immediately (Kudisch makes his "entrance" wearing a Snuggie, then doffs it to reveal a T-shirt and pajamas), and maintained with a gentle wink throughout, you never think you're getting less than what you anticipate and deserve. This is a particularly nice trick given that the show is, at its core, tradition-bound.

True, Denman and Kudisch, who created the show and have provided all their own arrangements, don't always stick with the tried-and-true. The lovely "There's Always Tomorrow," from the Rankin-Bass Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, is an unusual inclusion, and Kudisch's crooning Trey Parker and Matt Stone's mock-bitter "Lonely Jew on Christmas" (with new material Kudisch penned with Michael Lavine), is a rare treat. But the blend of secular and religious numbers, and the ultimate message of the holidays being about togetherness and family and not gifts, is well-trod territory.

Denman giving Kudisch a festive tap lesson (to "Put One Foot in Front of the Other") may as well have been lifted from White Christmas. Who couldn't foresee that there would be some sort of gift-giving component, or that Kudisch would run through the litany of classic Christmas songs penned by Jewish writers? There's even an onstage reading of "The Night Before Christmas," albeit ornamented with clever folio sound effects, that proves neither Denman nor Kudisch wants to take too many chances.

There is, however, nothing wrong with playing it safe, provided even the most familiar elements are executed to perfection—and here they are. A kazoo-kissed "Jingle Bells," "Holly Jolly Christmas" spiced up with Jamaican rhythms and intonations, David Friedman's assertive "My Simple Christmas Wish," Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time Is Here" given an earnest duet rendering, and orchestrations that are as heavy on its stars playing the guitar and ukulele as it is the piano, bass, and drums in Timothy Splain's band should not easily and peacefully coexist. But because of Denman and Kudisch's ease with themselves, each other, and the audience, each new-old number jolts you attention even as it sets your head a-nodding in recognition of why it's here. (One assumes that someone considered not giving Denman a lengthy Nutcracker-infused tap solo would be considered a crime against humanity; whoever that was quite possibly was correct.)

Big problems are nonexistent, though things do get maudlin as they reach their conclusion; the tart, casual nature of the earlier bits, unencumbered by hoary devices like a letter from Denman's mother or direct allusions to last week's Newtown, Connecticut, shooting, is definitely more overtly fun. But even when they submit themselves fully to your expectations, their artistic abilities and onstage miens keep things chugging along on the irresistible fuel of pure show-biz.

By the time the finale arrives and the duo dives headlong into an encore of other upcoming holidays—New Year's Eve and Valentine's Day (though there's some question about the latter one)—you're not ready for either Christmas morning or the final day of Hanukkah to end. Chances are you'll find yourself wishing, as you might still on those days in real life, you'd have presents this good to open all year long. As long as Denman and Kudisch are out there the possibility exists, and that's more than enough to find under any tree.

The Holiday Guys in Happy Merry Hanu-Mas
Through December 31
York Theatre Company at The Theatre at Saint Peter's—Citigroup Center, 619 Lexington Avenue at 54th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: York Theatre Company

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