REVIEW: SLT Spreads Yuletide Gags in ‘Every Christmas Story Ever Told’

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

Jim Huber., Jay Coffman and Benjamin Abrams in “Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!)

At any given time during the holidays, there are at least 7 variations of “A Christmas Carol” on Upstate stages.

That’s why Spartanburg Little Theatre always bucks the trend of those feel-good guilty pleasures (Hallmark Movie channel junkies, you know who you are!) and spikes it’s Christmas eggnog with a bit of riotous rum-raisin hilarity and fabulous fruitions of fruitcake fodder.

In fact, this year’ s annual SLT holiday show in the Black Box Theatre at Chapman Cultural Center is concerned with that very premise. In “Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!),” three SLT actors (Executive Artistic Director Jay Coffman), and that crazy duo from the 1980s hair-band summer hit “Rock of Ages”, Benjamin Abrams and Jim Huber, are opening their traditional production  of “A Christmas Carol” (with Coffman as the Dickens narrator) when Ben (as the dead-as-a-doornail ghost of Marley) interrupts the proceedings claiming he is sick of the same old play every year:  “I started out as Tiny Tim and now I’m playing the old man.”  Besides, he adds, there are other BHCs: Beloved Holiday Classics.

This CliffsNotes setup, written by Michael Carleton, JamesFitzGerald, John K. Alvarez, is very similar to the zany, madcap “The CompleteWorks of William Shakespeare (Abridged),” though more accessible to the generaltheatre patron. I mean, who doesn’t know the story of Rudolph the Red-NosedReindeer  (or in this case Gustav theGreen-Nosed ReinGoat due to licensing issues), “Frosty the Snowman,” “How theGrinch Stole Christmas,” and “The Nutcracker.”

One quickly loses track of how many character the fellows recreate to comic hilarity and entertaining perfection.  But there are over 100 costume pieces and some 75 props as these three roll through the Great American Christmas Show Anthology playing all of the characters at breakneck speed and a few musical carol numbers  thrown in for good measure. Not to mention a bizarre cultural lesson on how other countries around the world celebrate the holidays. And often the “Santa” figure is not the benevolent figure we Americans hold true.

Coffman plays the straight guy here as the actor intent on pushing forward with the Scrooge story throughout the play by spontaneously resuming his monologue under eerie blue-gray lighting every chance he gets. He is a master of disguises and facial characterizations that work so well in this intimate setting: he’s an unwilling Grinch, a not-so-generous husband in “The Gift of the Magi,” and Hermey the Misfit Elf who longs to be a dentist in “Rudolph.” But his zenith occurs as he effortlessly acts in two stories at once: literally playing a virtuoso and melodramatic Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and a triumphant Ebenezer Scrooge in a 4-minute dash through the Dickens tale.

Huber, an incredibly versatile and sparkling characteractor, delights as that gruff artic prospector from  “Rudolph” Yukon Cornelius, Bob Cratchit, agameshow host and fruitcake philosopher, and a spirited (and surprisinglyattractive) Joanna the commentator of the Macy’s Christmas Parade replete with60-mile winds, which obviously poses risks to some of the …….drumroll please…..hot air balloons, also recreated here in the most creative and screwballways.

It is always a thrill to see Coffman on stage (in addition to his frequent directing duties) and the animated Huber never disappoints. But I have to say Abrams, the trio’s junior emerging artist, has bloomed exponentially in his brief career at SLT. Recently appearing in his first dramatic role in “The Boys in the Band,” Abrams does the lion’s share of the physicality and motion in this show; and often the silly lioness’ share in drag roles including a twinkling Sugar Plum Fairy in a pink tutu.

From his Pinocchio-voice for Rudolph (errrr Gustav), to hisMichelin Man -Frosty the Snowman with rythm in his Magic Hat, Abrams is thefearless chameleon here who proudly shows his unleashed range and potential in an impressive, vibrant, all-out crazy array of portrayals and he is a worthy foil and complement to his acting partners, who rely on their  more nuanced technique and experience.

“Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!)” is slightly risqué (for age 14 and up) and sprinkled with fun pop culture references the gang added to update the show.

“Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!)” continues December 14-15 at 8:00 pm.  in the Black Box Theatre at Chapman Cultural Center, 220 E. St. John St.  There are still walk-up tickets available at the door. Check Facebook for updates or visit https://chapmanculturalcenter.org.

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