Theatre Review: “On Thin Ice: A Very Phoenix Xmas 3”

“Balls” at the Phoenix Theatre - photo by Julie Curry

Last Sunday afternoon I met my brother, Ned, downtown at the Phoenix Theatre to see “On Thin Ice: A Very Phoenix Xmas 3.”  It was Ned’s first time ever at the Phoenix Theatre.  It was my third year seeing the Phoenix’s unique take on the holidays.  Each year is different.  I’m getting so I can’t imagine the holiday season without my Phoenix fix. 

Ned and I both enjoyed what director Bryan Fonseca calls their “neo-vaudeville” show, but for different reasons. In fact, chewing on it conversationally over dinner at Agio’s Restaurant afterwards was as much a pleasure as experiencing the show itself.

Ned liked the musical offerings best.  (Musical direction by Kevin D. Smith.)

Jenni Gregory, for example, sings a poignant “Real Love,” by John Lennon, accompanied by Michael Shelton on the piano.  Gayle Steigerwald, Sara Riemen, and Andy Rabensteine sing and sign “Joy to the World” in a way that evokes serenity as well as joy.  (Signing instruction by Joyce Ellinger.)  In a treat of pure percussion, Phillip Armstrong raps “Twas the Night Before Christmas” while Shelton and Gregory tap dance.   (Choreography by Linda Rees.)

“That Time of Year” is a wistful song that takes place at Broad Ripple’s Red Key Tavern.  The show’s sound designer, local musician Tim Brickley, and his songwriting partner David Rheins wrote the words and music for this song.   Shelton, Armstrong, Gregory, Riemen, and Rabensteine add more layers of story and relationships via their actions.

But this morning, as Ned and I were chatting online before we each left home for our day jobs, I asked him if he had a favorite song from the show. 

“Yes,” his answer came back quickly.  “The Africa medley.”

“(laughing) the what?” I typed back.

“I forget what it’s called.  I catch the rain down in Africa… It was a real crowd pleaser.”

“Did it open Act Two?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, thanks!  I’m glad I asked you.  I’ll add it.  Have a good day at work.”

“You, too!”

Isn’t it funny how one show can appeal to two people so differently?  I have “impressive and funny” in my notes for the “Holiday Medley” by the ensemble, but I wasn’t even going to mention it in my review!

I enjoyed the music and dancing (and there is even more that I’m not going to mention because I want to leave you at least a few surprises!), but I liked three of the comedy sketches best:

I remembered playwright Mark Harvey Levine from his “Very Hanukkah Special” contribution last year.  This year’s “Oy Vey Maria” is even funnier.  Did you know that Jesus’ grandmother wanted to name him Myron?  The whole six-member ensemble presents this piece about what that night at the stable was really like.

“Balls,” by George Cameron Grant, is a hilarious conversation between five Christmas ornaments with strong personalities tucked snugly in a box.  Jennifer Q. Smith’s costumes for this piece are a delight, too.   I want one of those silver hats.  (See photo by Julie Curry, above!)

And local actor turned playwright Carrie Fedor’s story of the miracle that took place in the ladies’ room on the night of the office holiday party is…well, I really don’t know how to write about it without giving too much away.  But I can tell you that the audience cackled (not just laughed, mind you, but cackled) for long after it was over, and I heard one woman behind us say to her friend, “I can’t believe they actually showed it!” 

I couldn’t believe it, either. But what a hoot!  I have to give extra “props” to Justin Kidwell for the props.  (Kidwell is also the technical director for the show.)

Karen Wittig designed the costumes for this sketch and for the rest of the show except for “Balls.” I especially loved the darling sheath dress worn with admirable confidence by one of the characters in Fedor’s piece.

The whole show was co-conceived by director Bryan Fonseca and the Phoenix’ Literary Manager Scot Greenwell.  Greenwell is also the dramaturg for the show.  Fonseca also designed the lights. 

Daniel Uhde designed the cheerful, versatile set with its peppermint floor and oversized toys.

When Ned and I were talking things over afterwards on Sunday afternoon, I realized that there was no “Don’t Eat the Baby” audience participation song this year.  I tried to sing it for him in the restaurant instead, though, which was probably more than enough for this year.  Now that I am home and have a chance to read my program I see that director Fonseca suspects this song may return for year 5, so that’s good.

There is no sing-a-long or chant-a-long or shout-a-long piece to take its place this year.  There is, however, a chance for one lucky audience member to go on stage and read the cue cards that stage manager Carlos Bustamante holds up as the ensemble acts out “A Three-Minute Christmas Carol,” by Jack O’Hara.  Someone named John was the more-or-less willing volunteer on Sunday afternoon.  He did a great job.  The whole piece left me breathless with laughter.

Tavis (no “r”), our excellent server at Agio’s, asked us if this was a show you could bring kids to.

“No!” I said immediately. 

But then I reconsidered.  I wouldn’t want anyone to bring little kids to it, because a lot would go over their heads and then they would get bored and start acting out and disturb the rest of us while their parents pretended to ignore them.

I mean, would little kids get why Jonathan Graham’s “Inappropriate Letter(s) to Santa Claus” (#1-6) are inappropriate?  Would little kids understand the way-past-your-bedtime TV references in “Another Turn of the Scrooge” by Carl L. Williams?  Would little kids get what the guys are arguing about at the Santa auditions in Michael Feruzza’s video, “The Working Claus?”

Probably not, so…no little kids.

However, I bet a lot of teenagers would love this show. 

That said, one serious monologue, “The Santa Sentence,” written by Richard Furlong and delivered with a complex darkness by Michael Shelton, is about a department store Santa who was arrested for allegedly mistreating some boys in a restroom and is now pleading his case before the judge.  I was touched by the ending, but it is definitely a piece meant for adults.

And I had never heard of Amy Wine before I saw “Christmas at Amy Wine’s House,” by Nesca Noyfarb, but apparently she really loves heroin.  I laughed just based on the gift-giving humor in this piece…but I am glad that I was with other adults and could laugh freely, not have to worry about being a role model.

(Addendum thanks to my sister: this website about an artist named Amy Winehouse is illuminating.  You can see and hear her sing a catchy tune whose chorus is “‘They tried to make me go to rehab, I said, ‘No, no, no!'”  Hah!  But I’m getting into her music, actually.  Another song has the line, “I cried for you on the kitchen floor.”  I may not do drugs, but girl, I’ve been there.) 

In fact, what I love most about “A Very Phoenix Xmas” every year is that it is, like adulthood – or childhood, for that matter – not all sweetness and light.  And yet, in spite of its realism, I leave feeling good.

As director Fonseca says in his program notes, “Ultimately what we’re after is a ‘feeling’ of the holidays – which is complex. On one hand, the holidays feel safe, warm, and familiar.  ‘Holidays’ mean carols at the spinet or gathering around the fireplace, Christmas tree or dining table.  But on the other hand, there’s stress, commercialism and fruitcakes – both figurative and literal.  I like to represent it all.”

Me, too.  I mean, I like to see and hear it all.   The creative risk-taking of “A Very Phoenix Xmas” both grounds me and inspires me the way no other holiday show does.  It makes me laugh.  And think.

(But I also love that the “commercials” in this show encourage me to see the other locally-produced holiday shows around town, too.  Many of them refresh my soul, too.)

Before and after the show, and at intermission, there is a silent auction going on in the Phoenix lobby.  I like to bid on a lot of things early and see what I end up with.  The first year, I won the bid for a sparkly white basket full of baubles and snow people.  I would never in a million years have bought such a thing ordinarily, but it was for a good cause and now I love getting it out every year.

This year, there is also a raffle for a trip to someplace warm and exotic.  (I want to say Cancun, but I’m not sure about that.)  When you go to the show, listen carefully to the curtain talk, or call the Phoenix Theatre’s administrative office at 317-635-2381 and ask for Development Director Tom Robertson for more information.

I am sad that I am not able to bid on Miss Aggie’s homemade cookies in the auction this year, but I love that she loved everything Christmas and I am grateful for her life.  I wish her son, Bryan Fonseca, and her whole family peace and comfort this holiday season.  I wish my brother and our family that, too. 

And yours, too!

 “On Thin Ice: A Very Phoenix Xmas 3” continues Thursday-Saturdays at the Phoenix Theatre through December 20, 2008.  A sign in the lobby says that Duke Energy makes it possible for every Thursday to be “cheap seat night.” For reservations, please call 317-635-PLAY(7529).

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

3 thoughts on “Theatre Review: “On Thin Ice: A Very Phoenix Xmas 3””

  1. Don’t feel to bad, Hope. I had never heard of Amy Winehouse either before I read reports on her entry
    into rehab. this year, and seeing a photo of someone dress up as her for Halloween. Can’t remember if it was a local pal or someone famous
    in a tabloid magazine I would read at the hair stylist’s !

    In my mind, Ferruzza’s the much bigger celebrity !

    So glad to have you and your blog’s company when I can’t sleep at 4:30 am. Cheers.

  2. You’re welcome, Adrienne. (But I’m sorry you couldn’t sleep last night!)

    My sister sent me a related link that made me smile. I added to my review. (Thanks, Bethany!)

  3. Adrienne! Get some sleep! We don’t need two funny neurotic insomniacs.
    Hope: I, too, didn’t know much about Amy Winehouse until some award show. Didn’t appreciate ‘Rehab’ and her style until I realized that she was breaking the Britney/Gwen/Fergie mold of pop star. Her music and sound were a throw back to the days of Ronnie Spector in the ’60s. Was it kitsch? No! Winehouse has been influencing female British pop artists since her arrival. As for the drugs? Well, if she uses them as they say, she will join Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and other 60s pop icons soon enough!
    Thanks for Reviewing… On Thin Ice! You are da Woman!

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