A/A + Coho go for Christmas kitsch

Action/Adventure's "Holiday Thing" and Coho's "Rudolph" revive mid-century modern classics...with a wink.

When Portland Center Stage “twists” Dickens and Artists Rep picks a fight with Santa and an errant elf, while Liminal re-invents “Our Town” and Bag & Baggage re-imagines “Noises Off,” which theaters will pick up the mantle of Christmas tradition? Who will pucker up under the mistletoe? Who will glaze this holiday’s ham?

rudolph

Rudolph on Stage!

Well, CoHo, for one, with a faithful-if-offbeat rendition of the classic sixties TV special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” “Rudolph on Stage!” is the latest from Shelly McLendon’s Bad Reputation Productions, a follow-up to film-to-stage adaptations of “Road House” and “The Lost Boys.” Like those titles, “Rudolph” translates a beloved film to a small stage space, knowing full well that the effect of that effort will be naturally funny.

Though the show admits kids, it’s really best-suited to kid-at-heart adults who remember the 1964 original special from closer to when it first aired. To complete the nostalgic effect, “Rudolph” even broadcasts vintage TV commercials like “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” during scene breaks.

The strategy works so well (and collective memory of the original is so faded) that several of the play’s laugh-inducing lines seem like recent additions — and indeed, Bad Reputation has added a few flourishes. For instance, prospector Yukon Cornelius lists “Luna Bars” among his survival provisions. A cry of “Land ho!” is met with a spicy, “Oh no he didn’t!” And much to the delight of longtime audiences, Bad Reputation’s Rudolph cathartically confronts his parents about their “faulty DNA” and Santa about his initial intolerance.

Other added lines simply highlight odd plot points from the original: “I have a problem and the only solution I can think of is to run away from it,” summarizes Hermey the elf before exiting the stage. “Let’s get the women home,” Rudolph later remarks with a pseudo-gallantry that sounds datedly sexist, whereupon McLendon, as his reindeer love, Clarice, slumps as if she’s fainted from feminine fatigue. But a few gems come straight from the original animated feature, including jabs about Santa’s weight and reference to him “polishing up his jingle bells.”

The wryest, wiliest twinkle emanates from the show’s snowman narrator, played by mischievous Mercury editor Wm. Steven Humphrey. Humpy leans hard on any line that could pass for double entendre, swinging the bottom tier of his snowman costume into a pendulous bum-waggle to capture maximum laughs coming and going. Another standout is Brad Fortier as “The Bumble” (aka abominable snowman), who mimics the movements of the original stop-mo monster immaculately, biting the empty air, madly rolling his eyes, and jerkily twitching his fingers. These two performances (and others) illustrate a point: when real-life people imitate stop-motion animation, humor naturally follows. Spacial choices, too, become comical gags, as when Clarice repeatedly “flies” across the tiny stage from all angles yelling, “Rudolph!,” or when a supposedly “faraway” castle is presented as a toy on a corner shelf.

Despite great instrumental arrangements by Jonny Newsome, the show’s music is hit-and-miss thanks to, ahem, variable singing. Rudolph and the elf, inarguably the story’s main characters, emote appropriately but melodically murder their duet “Misfits,” and several other numbers throughout the show. To be fair, the animated version shares this weakness, with many of its songs more spoken than sung. The noteworthy singer in both versions is the snowman — and luckily Humpy’s croon does justice to his TV counterpart, Burl Ives. McLendon’s also got great pipes, but clearly hasn’t demanded that talent of her production’s other actors.

That sour note notwithstanding, “Rudolph” is a cute show that provides a strong sense of ensemble community as well as a new portal of access to “Red-Nosed Reindeer”‘s fanciful little world.

holidaything

Action/Adventure’s Very Special Holiday … Thing

It’s actually mildly surprising that “Rudolph,” or its equivalent, isn’t happening at Action/Adventure Theatre; it’s definitely within that company’s wheelhouse. In prior shows like “Troll 2: The Musical” and “The Waterman,” A/A showed an affinity for kitschy storytelling, adaptation and minimal staging just like “Rudolph”‘s. But just when you’d think they’d get madcap, or continue in the vein of their very-contemporary and wildly successful improv serial Fall of the Band … A/A goes old school, with “Holiday Thing,” the kind of mid-century-modern Christmas revue best spoofed by Stephen Colbert but perhaps last attempted in earnest by Bing Crosby (or locally, of a fashion, by Oregon Ballet Theatre).

Stage left, there’s a piano (keyboard). Stage right, a (video of) roaring fire. Under the watchful gaze of a silent live Santa (Devon Granmo) and some animatronic Dickensian carolers, Bri Pruett and David Saffert sing carols cabaret-style, between which various comedians perform comedy/storytelling sets. Sean Jordan weighs the relative merits of visiting family versus … not. Barbara Holm cracks wise about eating disorders. David Mascorro shares uniquely Mexican-American Christmas memories, and Lucia Fasano even sings a mandolin-accompanied original, “Indoorsman,” about moving to the Northwest but not really wanting to experience nature. Last weekend, Stephanie Cordell sang a Christmas tune in mingled English and Pig Latin; this weekend Christian Ricketts will join the comedy roster and James Luster will impersonate Elvis.

The name “Holiday Thing” serves as a hint that this event isn’t as much of a “show” as many A/A titles. It’s looser and simpler, less demanding of both audience and cast. Saffert and Pruett are playful and relaxed, as if hanging out in the theater after hours. Sure, they’re putting on a show, but they’re not sweating every note or cue. With its cheery but casual tone, “Thing” may sell new visitors on A/A’s charisma, but not their typical level of polish. It’s more of a mid-season breather for fans and insiders who crave some familial warm fuzzies and a slice of gleeful Christmas cheese.

____

A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury

Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

Comments are closed.