BY JEFF LEVENE
While the Christmas season is said to bring out the child in us all, The Warehouse Theatre’s production of Christmas on the Rocks asks the pertinent question, what would happen if those same children from Christmas grew up? One dive bar and eight classic Christmas characters later, the answer is side splitting hilarity, excessive drinking, and some pretty heavy psychosis.
Set on Christmas Eve in a quainter more festive version of Cheers (set design by David Hartmann) Christmas on the Rocks is a series of vignettes. In each a famous “Christmas kid” bursts through the bar doors and thrusts their adult woes and growing pains into the ears of an almost too kind bartender (Ronn Carroll).
The shows eight holiday visitors are packed into seven scenes, each written by a different author, making for more of a Saturday Night Live feel to this sketch style show. And much like SNL it leads to some major hits and a few that don’t quite land their mark as written. But thanks to a quartet of four of the finest local actors here in the Upstate, more cloying moments are turned into side splitting gags that left our audience in stitches.
Matt Reece, as a disgruntled Hermes from the stop motion classic Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, plays fast and furious into a series of events at the North Pole that led to his firing and banishment. As he carelessly plays with bar equipment or circles the shelves like a rabid polar bear, he possesses the bar like a drunk gossip eyeing a role on Real Housewives.
Amanda Sox, as Karen from the animated Frosty the Snowman, takes the social medialite crazed diva and dives head first into the twisted mind of a fame starved vlogger. Capturing all her own antics on her waist belt camera, she lays across the bar like a pouting teen on the couch trying to grab the perfect angle. Later she precariously swirls around in a rickety chair, flipping between a sing songy timbre and yelling like a bratty Sweet 16 who didn’t get her Lambo, all the while desperate to get her followers attention.
Brock Koonce’s Ralphie is a kink shamed shadow of his former self, pushed down by life, ready to go back to a simpler time. He brings this blend of sheepishness and resolve that leaves audiences unsure if we should be ok with his newly formed habits.
Anne Kelly Tromsness as the young Zuzu Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life, is a hilarious psychotic mess, curdling into a puddle on her chair at the sound of a bell all while chasing her psych meds with a spiked Shirley Temple. She is constantly shaking with darting eyes hyping up the sense of schizophrenia and impending doom from some angry angels ready to get their wings.
And while comedy and absurdity are at the forefront, some of the best moments actually come when the show chooses to hold back and get emotional. And it’s Carroll’s bartender who is the integral part that prevents this show from being a simple bitter set up of pop culture jabs.
When Matt Reece returns as a grown cynical Tiny Tim, Carroll’s persistence and earnestness brings out such a unique sweetness against the show’s encroaching loss of not just Christmas spirit but human decency.
Again when Tromsness arrives as the insecure, burn slinging, vodka slugging Clara from The Nutcracker (perhaps the funniest performance of the night), Carroll offers the perfect balance of a sensitive, shocked, and ultimately kind guru to help her decaying marriage.
And in perhaps the cutest scene of the evening, Carroll prods the now married and miserable Charlie Brown (played with adorable accuracy by Koonce) to take a chance at happiness and dance with the girl with the curly hair (played with such a genuine sweetness by Sox).
Director Chip Egan does a fantastic job of working in this balance (capitalizing heavily in act 2), and his stellar cast executes this balance to perfection.
Also a major shout out to Costume Designer Allison Steadman’s pin pointedly accurate ability to bring such a familiarity to these characters through their outfits, while still maintaining a sense of worldliness about each design.
Like any sketch comedy show, Christmas on the Rocks has its moments of insane hilarity, ridiculous characters, and some great crude jokes and shock value. But what truly sets The Warehouse’s production apart is its stellar cast and their ability to not only double down on these larger than life characters, but to also make them vulnerable and human, truly exploring what it means to have holiday spirit.
”Christmas on the Rocks” continues through December 23. Get your tickets at WarehouseTheatre.com.