On the night before Thanksgiving I attended a special “pay what you can” preview performance of “A Very Phoenix Xmas 5: Regifted” directed by Bryan Fonseca at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indianapolis.
I don’t usually write about preview performances – even those open to the public – but the Phoenix’s annual “alternative holiday production” is an essential part of my personal holiday tradition and I was eager to see what it would include this year.
What the Show Is About
“A Very Phoenix Xmas” is always a live anthology of theatre pieces related to this holiday season. It always includes music, dancing, and comedy, like any variety show, but it also always includes a selection of short plays and/or monologues by a variety of playwrights, which is what I love most about it. It is also always irreverent in some ways, but it is rarely mean-spirited.
(I am not going to say it is never mean-spirited because there was that one piece…well, never mind. That piece didn’t make it into this year’s show.)
This 5th year, in the weeks leading up to the first rehearsal, Phoenix fans could go to the theatre’s website and vote on their favorite pieces from the previous four years. From the press release that Marketing and Media Relations Director Lori Raffel sent me:
The on-line survey gave Phoenix patrons a way to voice their opinions on sketches, songs and musical production numbers they wanted to see again. The most remarkable and rewarding part of the survey turned out to be the free-form section where participants could make individual comments about the past shows. Results showed that the variety show format with its combination of irreverent and edgy sketches was not just a refreshing change to most of the holiday programming—it has become an alternative holiday tradition that brings generations of families and friends together for the holidays.
“The survey comments turned out to be the most gratifying part of the selection process,” says Fonseca. “Responses ranged from simply ‘I love this show!’ and ‘This has become part of my holiday tradition’ to ‘As long as there’s tap dancing!’” One response included details about parents bringing their college-age children to the Xmas show and finding out that Saturday Night Live-style comedy is something they have in common. “We also discovered that the Phoenix Staff videos were one of the most popular additions to last year’s show,” says Fonseca. “My personal favorite was ‘I love the Xmas show at the Phoenix because it is unique, just like the theatre.’”
This year’s “greatest hits” show is 90% material from the past four years (and there is at least one piece from every year), but it has all been tweaked a bit, either through new actors with new interpretations or through the staging of it. There is at least one piece that is completely new.
Director Bryan Fonseca has a knack for pulling together outstanding ensembles of artists and drawing unusual work from them. I have been saying this to whoever would listen since the mid-1980s when the Phoenix Theatre was on the ground floor of that apartment building behind the Central Library.
Anyway, this year’s Xmas cast is a great mix, too. It includes three people that have been in all of the Phoenix Xmas shows since the beginning: Sara Riemen, Michael Shelton and Gayle Steigerwald. It is wonderful to see them all again.
This year, for example, Michael revisits a monologue called “The Santa Sentence” by Richard Furlong that he first performed in the 2007 show. It is lighter and funnier than I remembered it. I think this might be partly because of a costume change (I can’t remember what Michael wore in 2007), but also Michael’s delivery now is sardonic rather than psychotic. It is a subtle difference, but an effective one.
Sara Riemen and Gayle Steigerwald are hilarious as the mother and grandmother, respectively, of the Christ child in a play by Mark Harvey Levine called “Oy Vey Maria.” I don’t think the 2008 version of this piece included all of the stable animals that are in it this time. In any case, they are a funny “animatronic” visual in the background.
Jason Gloye and Stephen Hunt have each been in the show at least one other year. Each masters new roles this year. Jason, for example, becomes a cross-dressing co-worker at the office party in “Poodolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” by Carrie Fedor. Stephen gives a freshly poignant interpretation to the older and wiser snowman that Xmas newcomer Claire Wilcher talks to about immortality as a small child in “Death of a Snowman,” by Daniel Guyton. Claire is known around Indianapolis and beyond for her powerhouse singing voice and her fearlessly joyful comedic skills. I loved seeing her nail this more serious role as well. I felt as if my face were leaking, I cried so much during this piece, but I just let the tears fall and wiped them away as needed. I never got around to voting online, but Guyton’s “Death of a Snowman” is probably my favorite of all of the Phoenix Xmas pieces. Stephen and Claire made me love it all over again.
Even a couple of the production staff take turns performing this year. For example, assistant stage manager Amanda Lynn Meyer adds her beautiful singing voice to a holiday medley. Costume designer Ashley Kiefer becomes an adorable little bird in another piece.
I am not going to spoil the show by telling you about all of the more than a dozen pieces that are in it. I will say, though, that the show overall includes a nicely-balanced mix of moods, styles, themes, and topics. It includes energetic tap dancing and over-the-top disco dancing; gravity-defying body puppets and coy hand puppets; lush vocal music and childlike instrumental music; a short and oddly funny black-and-white film; and, of course, a variety of comedic and dramatic stories.
The production team does a great job with all of it. Kevin D. Smith is the music director. Director Bryan Fonseca and assistant director Lori Raffel designed the set. Michael McNamara designed the lights. Tim Brickley and Bryan Fonseca designed the sound. Tim Brickley produced the music. Ashley Kiefer designed the costumes and gathered or created the props (the poo-ey Rudolph!) Linda Rees is the choreographer. Nolan Brokamp is the technical director. Cody Grady is the light & sound operator. Amanda Lynn Meyer assists Bryan Fonseca with the stage management.
You can read your program ahead of time but even if you have been to all four previous Phoenix Xmas shows, you won’t know for sure what is going to happen next.
Audience and Appeal Factors
This show is definitely for adults and teens, not little kids.
This show has become a holiday tradition for many people besides me, but it appeals most, I think, to people who are in the mood for something that is NOT traditional.
It is also a good show for people that like to laugh a lot and to sing and clap along sometimes.
The Phoenix Mainstage is an intimate space, but if you have trouble reading posters unless you are up close to them, I would recommend that you sit house right if you can, near the screen that you will see hanging in a corner. Interesting paragraphs from the director and actors scroll up on this in between acts.
Note: The video greetings from the Phoenix staff and the items for the silent auction were not ready the night I went, but I am told they will be running in the lobby for the rest of the show’s run. I may have to go back a second time to see them! I enjoyed last year’s video greetings and the auction is always a hoot.
That reminds me: it is time to put out that baubly snowman basket thing-y that I out-bid everyone for in the Phoenix auction two or three years ago.
“A Very Phoenix Xmas 5: Regifted” runs on the Phoenix Theatre Mainstage through December 19, 2010. Performances are WEDNESDAYS and Thursdays at 7pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm. Thanks to the generosity of Duke Energy, both Wednesdays and Thursdays are “CheapSeats” nights – i.e., tickets then are only $15 each.
Call 317-635-PLAY (7529) to purchase a ticket or charge them online at phoenixtheatre.org. You can also ask about group rates. All seating is general admission on a first-come, first-served basis. Jessica runs the Phoenix Pub in the lobby and sells beer, wine, soft drinks, coffee, bottled water, and yummy brownies and chocolate-coconut bars, which you can take into the theatre with you if you want.
‘See you at the theatres!
(All photos in this post are by Julie Curry. Run your mouse over each photo to see the actors’ names.)