Not Another Christmas Letter! Catchy Music Puts the “Hum” in “Bah, Humbug”

By ROB LESTER****Optimists see the glass of Christmas egg nog as half-full, pessimists see it as half-empty, plus high in fat and calories, and are probably lactose-intolerant and ready to whine and complain about it.  Characters maxed-out on Christmas pressures in a spunky revue running through December 20 are winked at and presented as worthy of “We’ve all been there” sympathy.   It’s a breezy, blithe bitchfest that’s more of a fine whine and  that doesn’t demand much of its audience except a smile and a chuckle that may come from a sense of recognition.

Playing at MetroBaptist Church, presented by resident company Stomping Grounds Theatre through December 20, the game and peppy cast of four consists of musical theatre-experienced actor-singers Laura Darrell (Kid Victory),  Catherine Walker (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder), Rob Richardson (Jekyll and Hyde),  and Bret Shuford (Paramour). They change characters as easily as an eager shopper trying on warm and fuzzy various winter coats, energy and spirits high.  While much on tap finds them griping and grousing about seasonal expectations, it’s all quite tongue-in-cheek and more about gritting your teeth than breaking down in sobs or breaking out of tradition to take the next step and resist or cease and desist going along with the “here we go again” seasonal dysfunction and reluctance. The topics? Taking the annual family photo (if selfish, self-absorbed, phone-addicted Sister will ever stop taking calls), keeping up with Joneses next door for elaborate and gaudy, over-the-top lit-up decorations around the outside of the house, and of course– buying and getting gifts, getting and sending cards and news, not to mention the forced cheer.  Sigh.

It’s a pretty zippy show, and how much it resonates may depend on how entrenched one is with the kind of holiday fare that’s fair play in this play that plays on and on about the parts of Christmas that make one reach for the Tylenol rather than the tinsel and temporarily trendy in-demand gift.  (Ah, nostalgia for the once too-hot Sesame Street treat of a toy, Tickle Me Elmo, now probably banned as potential unwanted sexual harassment by an aggressive celebrity.)

While the characters may seem to sweat the small stuff int the tradition-stuffed time of year, with presumed peer pressure keeping the worry-warts worried and holiday-hurried, the cast barely breaks a sweat, so it’s more frolicking than fraught, more frothy than frenzied, more friendly than frantic.  They’ll shrug it off, often because misery loves company and the decidedly heterosexual male bonding, girl power pals, and man-and-wife/Mom-and-Dad couples bolstering each other’s spirits as the Christmas spirit in overdrive drives ’em crazy.

Bragging rights about family accomplishments gets the show off to a good start in a vignette about the titular Christmas missive update sent by snail mail, ticking off success after triumph.  In planning what they how possibly counter the senders whose kids are attending Harvard and Yale, the receivers —in rhyme, of course—compare their lot: should they admit that they’re pleased to just know they have kept their kids out of jail.   Online communication and social media come in for a deservedly scalding scolding.  A little more edge or a change-of-pace moment of real sentiment would have been welcome; there’s a “playing it safe” safety net here as if the sniping and snottiness will be kept in check and situations feel quite middle-class//suburban/generic white and white bread couples. One might want more distinctively different detailed characterizations and varied looks for the characters, something quirkier now and then, so they don’t seem quite as interchangeable with utilitarian and personality-anemic costuming.  I did appreciated the quartet of identical Christmas sweaters,

but where were the sufficiently ugly and tacky ones?  More creative sight gags would add more fun.

Directed by Nick Demos, co-produced by Gwen Arment, the revue features book, lyrics and additional music by Paul Cozby and music and arrangements by Laura Bergquist.  Live piano/ musical direction, crisp and on target, is by Brett Kristofferson, a familiar friendly face for friends of the cabaret world. (Namesake Bret Shuford also showed up with his own endearing and smart cabaret act not all that long ago at Don’t Tell Mama.)

The appealing theatre space in this charming, welcoming church is located a few steps up (if you’re stomping from the grounds) at 410 West 40 Street.  Tickets are $25.  That’s twenty-five, like the date Christmas arrives—ready or not.