Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!)
The cast of four has evolved over the years, although one Cincy Shakes veteran, the delightfully rubbery comedian Justin McCombs, has been in every iteration, playing a Christmas- and Santa-loving naïf who no longer wants to be part of annual stagings of A Christmas Carol. Despite the unsuccessful efforts of a true-blue Dickens fan (Candice Handy) to bring Scrooge back to life, she is constantly overruled by McCombs' silly goof and a pseudo-suave, martini-swilling compatriot (Geoffrey Warren Barnes III). The chemistry is a formula for chaotic merriment. The subdued Victorian set, initially backed with video snow falling over a dim Victorian landscape, revolves to reveal over-the-top, floor-to-ceiling holiday decor: twinkling lights, tinsel, a fireplace (with clap-on/clap-off flames), and enough excess to evoke a round of applause from the decked-out audience.
In fact, after 16 iterations, many audience members come back every year in Christmas finery, well versed in the jokes, and ready to play right along. When a beleaguered actor says, "I need a hand," everyone is cued to applaud loudly. Cincy Shakes has added a fourth player to the mix, one not envisioned in the original script. For many years it was a raucous and witty Australian member of the company, Miranda McGee, who sat on a sleigh at stage left drinking Foster's and offering wry comments as "Drunk Santa." A new performer, Colleen Dougherty, has taken over that role: More saucy than drunk, she is the first Gen-Z actor to perform in the production and her largely ad-libbed observations and commentary reflect a different generation of humor, including a series of takes on Taylor Swift and a wish for a "Merry Swift-mas."
This show is tomfoolery from start to finish. McCombs buzzes around the set with a Norelco electric razor, recalling the TV ads for a sponsor of many early holiday specials. He's also a coy Mary Bailey and Clarence Odbody, George Bailey's guardian angel, and Mr. Gower, the drunk, grieving pharmacist. Handy gets pressed into an array of characters from the Grinch to George Bailey, despite her frustrated efforts to turn the show's attention back to Ebenezer Scrooge. Barnes, whose rapid-fire delivery of lyrics and lines is breathtaking, renders a Kanye West moment (dressed in a black ninja outfit) and is a clumsy Ghost of Christmas Future. All the characters take turns reporting on bizarre Christmas traditions from around the world.
Every year director Jeremy Dubin and his crew refresh this funny show with contemporary mentions, updates and characters–a process anticipated and encouraged by the playwrights. That keeps returning audiences on their toes and guffawing. I heard a fellow in the men's room during intermission say, "I just could not stop laughing." That's what Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!) is all about.
Despite the nonstop hilarity, there are genuine moments. In a re-creation of A Charlie Brown Christmas, after Charlie (Barnes) is berated by Lucy (Handy) for his selection of a bedraggled tree, he wonders if anyone can tell him the true meaning of Christmas. Linus (McCombs, with a blue security blanket) steps into a pool of light and delivers the New Testament verses from Luke 2: "I bring you good tidings of great joy ..." Surrounded by silliness, this is a startling intrusion of stillness and beauty that always resonates with warmth, especially with the wish of "peace on earth and goodwill to men."
The show wraps up with a musical number, "Every Christmas Song Ever Sung," a mind-blowing compilation of lyrics performed at high speed, ending with a joyous "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." As intentionally ridiculous as the whole 90-minute production is, it's a joyful reminder of the fun and memories the holidays offer, year after year. It's what the show calls "BHCs," "Beloved Holiday Classics." It has become one itself.
Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!) runs through December 31, 2022, at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, Otto M. Budig Theatre, 1195 Elm Street in Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit cincyshakes.com or call 513-381-2273.