Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of CHRISTMAS ON THE ROCKS at TheaterWorks Hartford
Through December 23rd
It was long, long ago and well before the era of audio and video instant gratification. It was before Netflix, Vudu, Hulu, Amazon, iTunes, and every other mass-streaming service. Before the age of “timeshifting” – or recording a program or movie and watching it later. And before DVD players, DVRs, and VCRs. Yes, there actually was a time (for those of us old enough to remember) when – Egad! — families routinely checked the listings in the TV Guide. And for some very special shows, they might have planned meals, often laid out on TV trays, then huddled together in front of the massive, metric-ton square box to catch any of a number of the once-a-year holiday favorites.
But even if we’ve since bought the DVDs or caught them On Demand, these nostalgic goodies never get stale. Many of them premiered even before I was born, but as a kid, I did eagerly await their annual broadcasts – and when I grew up, I proffered the same to the next generation – to my own children who also have loved them throughout the years. With origins of some of the beloved tales dating as far back as the 1800s, there are myriad choices and certainly something for everyone.
In flights of pure fancy, one might wonder, however, if there’s life beyond the storyboards, film, and stage; if perhaps any of the beloved holiday characters, conceived from creative genius, exist in some alternate universe, or even somewhere in ours. For we’ve warmly welcomed them into our homes and hearts, haven’t we? Consider no more – because according to Rob Ruggiero, producing artistic director of the matchless TheaterWorks Hartford, in his rollicking and riotous Christmas on the Rocks (which he conceived and also directs), “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” – and there’s also a Ralphie Parker, a Susan Walker, a Hermey the elf, a Karen (builder of a very real Frosty the Snowman), a Tiny Tim, a Clara Silberhaus/Stahlbaum, and a Charlie Brown, among others. Good grief!
Touted as “An Offbeat Collection of Twisted Holiday Tales,” Ruggiero enlisted in the aid of massive talent – playwrights John Cariani, Jenn Harris, Jeffrey Hatcher, Jacques Lamarre, Theresa Rebeck, Edwin Sanchez, Jonathan Tolins, and Matthew Wilkas – to weave together new yarns of these iconic characters, who now are all grown up. The premise? One snowy Christmas Eve, a host of weary woebegones happen upon a lone barkeep where they purge their current adult sorrows in front of a paltry smattering of garland and twinkle lights and over a slug of various spirits (of the alcoholic kind).
In considering this review, I must say this production is just too good to give anything away – I feel as if I’ve already dished too many spoilers in just having named the aforementioned personages – but suffice it to say, there isn’t a truly happy one in the bunch. And like some ripped-from-the-headlines, paparazzi gossip about child stars gone bad, each has some gripe about fame (or lack thereof), their parents, their costars, or life in general. Toss in a bucket of melted snow, shelled peanuts, a piece of prime real estate, some blue leather, and a Red Ryder BB gun incident and you’ve got the all the makings you need for laugh-‘til-your-sides-ache, holiday merriment.
With an uber-talented cast of just three, the play opens as a bored bartender, delightfully played by Broadway veteran Ronn Carroll, tinkers around and tidies up his empty pub. When the snow and cold bring in a curiously motley crew (all male roles are played by an incredible Matthew Wilkas and all female roles are played by a phenomenal Jenn Harris – both of whom morph so effortlessly it’s like child’s play), we first meet Ralphie from the 1983 film A Christmas Story and get a glimpse about what life’s been like since bouncing from celluloid into the cosmos. The unnamed bartender serves up not only alcohol, but some sage advice (as all bartenders do, don’t they? Interesting that I myself once was a bartender then later became a psychotherapist!). One out and the next in, bitter divorcee Susan Walker (from the 1947/1994 Miracle on 34th Street) is still all ears for the jingle of Santa’s sleigh and a great house on the market. The next two patrons, Hermey the elf-cum-dentist (from the 1964 Rankin/Bass Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) and snowman fabricator extraordinaire Karen (from the 1969 Rankin/Bass Frosty the Snowman), might just bring in the most sidesplitting of the laughs as neither wishes to stay in the shadow of their film titles’ characters. Following on their heels is not-so-Tiny Tim (of A Christmas Carol, based upon Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella), who is alive and well due to the generosity of his now-deceased benefactor Ebenezer Scrooge; the man whose intentions about which he seems a bit confused. Then the final nuts in the mix spring from E. T. A. Hoffman’s 1816 The Nutcracker and the Mouse King (or perhaps the better known 1892 ballet by Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker) and Charles Schulz’s Peanuts first-ever special, the 1965 A Charlie Brown Christmas; they are of course, Clara and Charlie Brown, respectively. Good thing no one has a nut allergy.
Done in seven scenes, “All Grown Up” featuring Ralphie is written by Cariani; “The Cane in the Corner” featuring Susan is written by Tolins; “Say It Glows” featuring Hermey is written by Hatcher; “My Name is KAREN!” featuring who else but KAREN! is written by Jenn Harris and Matthew WIlkas; “God Bless Us Every One” featuring Tiny Tim is written by Theresa Rebeck; “Still Nuts About Him” featuring Clara is written by Edwin Sanchez; and “Merry Christmas, Blockhead” featuring Charlie Brown is written by Jacques Lamarre. It must be said that this powerhouse group of playwrights and actors has more Broadway, Off-Broadway, television, and film credits than Santa has gifts in his sack.
Major shout-outs to set designer Michael Schweikardt for a wonderfully realistic bar; Alejo Vietti for fabulous costume design; John Lasiter for lighting design; Michael Miceli for sound design; and Mark Adam Rampmeyer for wig design.
As we wind down 2016, a year which many say has been one of the toughest yet, settling in for a bit of escapist entertainment is just what’s on the (bar) menu. And since TheaterWorks also has a well-appointed real bar, arrive early because pre-show you’ll be able to pick your own poison and have it on the rocks, too!
If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story. – Orson Welles
What a great Christmas/holiday drink Rob Ruggiero, artistic director at TheaterWorks Hartford for all of us who wish to imbibe. What do you get when you start with a brilliant idea, have it fleshed out by seven creative playwrights, and stirred with three talented actors who can play just about any part this side of the North Pole?
I’ll tell you what you get – the play Christmas on the Rocks now playing at TheaterWorks. It is a wonderful holiday gift, just in time for to bring cheer and Christmas spirit to the hardest of hearts. (That’s right, it would even put a smile on Mr. Grinch himself if not a downright continuous belly laugh.)
The premise is truly creative. Take seven iconic Christmas stories with seven iconic Christmas fictional celluloid characters, age them to present day, and give us a slice of what their life is like now. The characters chosen are Ralphie from A Christmas Story; Susan from Miracle on 34th Street; Hermey from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer; Karen from Frosty the Snowman; Tiny Tim from A Christmas Carol; Clara from The Nutcracker; and Charlie Brown from Peanuts’ A Charlie Brown Christmas. The program tells us that the action takes place in “[a] local bar in a lonely corner of the cosmos, Christmas Eve.”
Ralphie, who only wanted a BB rifle for Christmas back in 1983 in A Christmas Story, shows up first. He is all grown up now, but not without some residual childhood scars – eye patch, plush fetish, a thirst for Nehi pop soda and a nylon-stocking leg lamp. Next, Susan from Miracle shows up. She’s a hard-nosed real estate agent now who has traded in her childhood belief in Santa for reverse mortgages. Next in line is Hermey, the elf from Rudolph. He’s grown up (I think) with his own set of childhood scars and eclectic eccentricities (for lack of a better description). Remember who made Frosty? It was a girl named Karen who has developed Frosty envy because no one – including Frosty himself – remembers her. Dickens’ Tiny Tim is alive and well but seems to have a false memory of the man who saved his life – Scrooge. Poor Tiny recalls Scrooge’s generosity as a symptom of his psychotic mental state. (I am certain that my wife and co-reviewer will have a field day with that description.) Then there is Clara who still carries a torch (more like a cannon) for her past dream lover the Nutcracker. And finally, there is the grown up Blockhead himself, Charlie Brown. He is exactly as I would have pictured him as an adult – insecure, pessimistic with the same taste for yellow sweaters encircled with a jagged lightning bolt. By a twist of fate, destiny or just plain happenstance, they parade through the local bar and have something akin to a therapy session with the wise old bartender who helps them come to a resolution of their issues (I think the bartender was really Santa without the beard).
I know that the above plot description cannot do the play justice. Nor can I do it justice without giving away too many plot spoilers. Suffice it to say that this is a side-splitting, hilarious holiday hoot! While it may help if you’ve seen the iconic Christmas films, it is in no way a pre-requisite for enjoying the show. I was fortunate enough to have seen all seven films, but some I haven’t seen for decades. The only thing I can remember about A Christmas Story is Darren McGavin’s portrayal of “The Old Man.” (He was so good as Kolchak in The Night Stalker.) Despite my flagging memory, I thoroughly enjoyed the parody of A Christmas Story. It also helped that before the play started there were clips from the films.
Each skit or scene stood on its own as an engaging piece of theatre. The playwrights responsible for this “Offbeat Collection” (as the program notes) are the following “All Grown Up” by John Cariani (A Christmas Story); “The Cane in the Corner” by Jonathan Tollins (Miracle on 34th Street); “Say It Glows” by Jeffrey Hatcher (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer); “My Name Is KAREN!” by Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas (Frosty the Snowman); “God Bless Us Every One” by Theresa Rebeck (A Christmas Carol); “Still Nuts About Him” by Edwin Sanchez (The Nutcracker); “Merry Christmas, Blockhead” by Jacques Lamarre (A Charlie Brown Christmas).
The three-actor cast was simply wonderful. Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas (who also penned “My Name is KAREN!”) took turns playing all of the resurrected characters with incredible panache and aplomb. Ms. Harris and Mr. Wilkas make each character they play their own, imbuing them with their own special quirks and oddities. Veteran character actor Ronn Carrol as the local bartender plays perfect foil (and straight man) to each of the characters, dispensing not only wisdom, but a hefty dose of psychotherapy. (Actually I am sure he was Santa without the beard.)
As always, Rob Ruggeriero did a masterful job of directing. And a special shout out must go to Michael Schweikardt for a great set design. It is the attention to details that is one of the things I love about TheaterWorks Hartford. In this production, it was not only the directing and acting, but the Easter eggs in the form of props like Tiny Tim’s crutch and Kris Kringle’s cane in the corner of the bar.
Christmas on the Rocks is a perfect holiday gift that will leave you with a smile on your face and a warm feeling all over. What more can we ask for? Treat yourself to it this holiday season.