Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


A Forbidden Broadway Christmas springs from the Forbidden Broadway mold; if the original was successful, why shouldn't they make money off a Christmas-themed sequel? It's the very kind of business decision creator/writer Gerard Alessandrini would have mocked, had he not made it himself. In its third year at the Gem Theatre, this bastard child of the Broadway machine features spectacular voices paying homage to the genre, even as it bites back with literal and figurative Grinchiness.

The bread and butter of this cabaret-style production is the tunes, favorites spanning decades of Broadway history. Some songs are paired with their respective shows, as in an extended Les Miserables medley, but more unexpected and creative choices are revealed when, for example, Gypsy's "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" is reworded to address the industry's recent puppetry fad. Topics range from Christmas to the economy to more specific barbs aimed at Broadway's producers and divas, but you don't have to know who Cameron Mackintosh is (trust me, I didn't) to appreciate a song about the merchandising craze. Over the course of its two hours, the show does run a few concepts into the ground — yes, okay, Disney is everywhere! — but overall there is a decent balance of Christmas-specific parody along with the Broadway commentary, plus a hefty dose of riotous celebrity impressions for impressions' sake. The material is strong enough that I didn't mind the repetition, and each number offers something that the others don't.


The premise is almost disarming: performers Greg Trzaskoma and Brian Thibault (using their actual names) have written a musical. An expensive, bloated Titanic of an epic musical — ship or film, both apply. And they're pitching it to you, their audience of potential investors and sponsors.

Such is The Big Bang, the title of both the "proposed" show and this current offering by the Jewish Ensemble Theater. It brings something new to the genre, a fine solution to the problem of staging a traditional musical: all the people, the costumes, the orchestra! Here, Stacy Cleavland doubles as music director and the third cast member, single-handedly providing live accompaniment and delivering a few great jokes of her own. Director Mary Bremer establishes immediate contact between performers and audience that completely blurs the lines of pre-show and the play's start, delightfully heightening the unconventional portrayal. The conceit of pitching the play instead of performing it also allows for numerous descriptions of the artists' visions for the final product, each as gaudy and costly as a Las Vegas revue.


This was my first viewing of the Matrix Theater's three-year Puppet Scrooge franchise, so although the original 2007 script was purported to be further adapted and updated, I can't say what was old and what was new. Despite the promise of new and improved, the production I saw was a bit lacking in energy; admittedly, the bare-bones matinee audience may have had a hand in that. At its heart, though, I still felt there was something missing — yes, there are puppets, and there is Scrooge, but the two have trouble coexisting.

The root of this production's weaknesses may be in an adaptation that has trouble maintaining a point of view. Occasionally preachy and abrupt, it also spends a lot of time wandering deep in the vignettes presented by Scrooge's three spirits. On the one hand, the writers take liberties with changing characters' names and genders (most notably, this Scrooge is a woman), and add minor animal characters that watch the action and add punchlines, Statler and Waldorf–style. On the other, its lockstep devotion to the original story's structure and minor plots limit the exploration of these changes and muddle what could have been a freer adaptation. Moreover, in order to showcase the types of puppetry used, including hand puppets, rod puppets, shadow puppets, and a brief appearance by marionettes, Scrooge is often pushed to the edges of the stage, silent instead of interactive, and her path toward repentance is harder to track as a result.


O holy crap, is there a lot of content in Miracle on 9 Mile Street. For its first original holiday sketch show, Go Comedy! digs deep, with scenes that range from one-line jokes to musical numbers — blending puns, parodies, sight gags, and wacky characters into a sampler of sterling comedy. Barreling on a considerable wave of forward momentum, the ninety-minute revue hits plenty of high notes.

Under the direction of Michelle and Tommy LeRoy, the show's framework resembles the Second City mold: there is no plot, and almost no recurring characters. Instead, Miracle free-wheels variations on the holiday theme. Each sketch is polished and strong, the point of view is fresh, and the action rarely drags. Although most scenes had a familiar structure and length, one longer and quite ambitious time-shifting scene landed a sucker punch of tenderness that was a welcome counterpoint to the surrounding mania.


For its holiday mainstage show, Who Wants Cake? brings out the big guns: Joe Plambeck and Joe Bailey, the powerhouse at the company's helm. Directed by Jamie Richards, The SantaLand Diaries & Season's Greetings is described as a double bill; it draws its name from the titles of the two David Sedaris pieces presented, the former an autobiographical essay recounting the writer's experiences as a Macy's elf, the latter a fictitious — I hope — presentation of a housewife's annual Christmas newsletter.

The two halves of the play are decidedly distinct, as advertised, one narrated and the other in character, one man dressed in an elf costume and the other in winter white with kitten heels, one full of real-life crazies and the other invented craziness. Each has a surprisingly different tone, but together they deliver a cohesive blow to the merry and bright. This sort of anti-Christmas view is unique in that it skewers from within instead of without — rather than hovering at the fringes and throwing barbs, this show derives its humor from characters that stood so close to the Christmas spirit, they got burned.


In homage to the rapid-fire preamble of Williamston Theatre's This Wonderful Life — in which actor John Lepard traces the story arc of It's a Wonderful Life in less than a minute using sound bytes, like a gleeful parlor trick — I will attempt the same feat. Working alone, Lepard both shows and tells, plays all with distinction. Strong choices emphasize casual storytelling. Entire universe gives way to iconic staircase; twinkle-star angels, just like the movie! Labor deserving of a more daring script, yet satisfying. (How'd I do?)

First: John Lepard. The swell of one-man and one-woman productions this season should not diminish what a feat it is to energetically spin a compelling tale for seventy or eighty or ninety minutes straight. Lepard's task is to revive the classic film before the audience's eyes: in part to recreate dialogue, in part to narrate, and occasionally to provide commentary, all three of which he does with abundant sparkle and charm. The work this actor has put into the text is evident, from the consistent body language suggesting dozens of distinct individuals to the transitions between characters in mid-conversation. (Changing body and voice in an instant is no picnic in itself, to say nothing of adding a good Jimmy Stewart in heavy rotation.) A delight when he's clearly having fun, Lepard also summons a heartfelt and grave climactic scene bound to put a catch in one's throat.

A revised performance schedule almost caused me to miss If Only In My Dreams. Instead, I found myself at what had become the last performance in the Blackbird Theatre's longtime home. A mere two actors, Barton Bund and William Myers, gave the place not just a marvelous sendoff, but a cool and challenging take on a Christmas play.

If Only In My Dreams is a collection of four short stories and novel excerpts, told by their authors (Bund and Myers tackle two writers each). The set for this production is scaled way back; in fact, the open space, corner bar, and mismatched furniture evoked a Christmas-decorated basement. With very little to look at, and a single performer onstage at a time, the challenge of this production is earning and keeping an audience's attention, and Bund and Myers exceeded my expectations.


If you crave sincerity and the warmth of human kindness this time of year, look elsewhere. This joint effort of Who Wants Cake? and Sweetlove Productions is hardly even a Christmas story, but rather a loosely plotted comedy that happens to be set at the North Pole. However, if your idea of a happy holiday is spewing hot toddy through your nose from laughter, be sure to stay up late for The Real Housewives of the North Pole.

The original script, by director Marke Sobolewski and cast member Cara Trautman, draws inspiration from the Bravo network's Real Housewives series. Supposedly, behind every great man is a great woman, so here we look into the lives of Mrs. Claus, Mrs. Kringle, the mayor's wife, an uninhibited divorcee, and the new woman in town, whose contractor husband was hired to save the struggling Pole. The writers draw on the reality-TV framework with sparing use of "confessional" interview scenes, but aren't afraid to stray from the source material and let the simple story tell itself. The women are at their best in group scenes as they drink, fight, give advice, go on excursions, suspect and spy on each other, and throw a fundraiser. Although you don't have to like the Real Housewives franchise to enjoy this play, fans of "Tardy For the Party" should also be satisfied by the included spoofs.


It's hardly exaggeration to claim that A Christmas Carol is the juggernaut of holiday theater. Just about everything else is an also-ran, described as "an [adjective] alternative" to the gold standard, hence the popularity in film and theater in seeking out new and different adaptations for the well-worn story. In this reviewer's estimation, the Performance Network's premiere of Christmas Carol'd, by local artist Joseph Zettelmaier, takes its place at the top of the heap.

The other plays I had seen by Zettelmaier followed a pretty traditional structure, but here I was thrilled at his ear for narrative and easy shifts in time and place. In a cast of five, with one actor exclusively playing Scrooge (John Seibert), the other four "carolers" play all of the supporting characters and tackle the narration, which is primarily lifted straight out of Dickens's novella. The result retains the familiar dialogue, but steeps it in the author's rich and crackling prose, and Zettelmaier experiments with tag-team descriptions and overlap that only enhance its cadence and humor. In fact, the most disappointing moments in this production were when the narration was rushed, muffled, or drowned out by other sounds.


At Christmastime, plays about Hanukkah seem risky. Many Hanukkah stories concede to offer a sort of Christmas Lite — after all, Hanukkah is primarily known in the Christian world because it is What Jews Do At Christmas; it's "not even one of the high holy days," as one character kvetches in the The Hebrew Hammer. Adapted for the Planet Ant from a Comedy Central original movie, Hammer's plot also depends upon Christmas: there's a new Santa in charge, and he's a racist power monger who plans to end Hanukkah and Kwanzaa once and for all. The Jewish Defense League is desperate to stop him, and the only man resourceful and (ahem) unorthodox enough to do it is the title character (Jon Ager). With his love interest, Esther (Sarah Switanowski), they encounter hordes of characters, played by a supporting cast of five, on their adventures.

The influence of the blaxploitation genre shows, from the music to the montage sequence hilariously aping drug pushers. Ager and Switanowski give serviceable performances as the Hammer and Esther, infusing the genre with plenty of Jewish stereotypes. The ensemble plays an overwhelming number of characters, and although I'm not familiar with the source material, it seemed that some bits — and bit parts — could have been further distilled or eliminated for a smoother flow. The ensemble doesn't always shine when all its members appear together, but each actor had at least one outstanding character or scene to showcase. As the only woman in the ensemble, Lisa Melinn took on a large share of the character work, and her work is spot-on each time she's onstage.