It’s a Christmas miracle that “Christmas on the Rocks” has now entered its sixth season at TheaterWorks. We need its sweet insanity more than ever.
The show, conceived and directed by the theater’s producing artistic director Rob Ruggiero, is such a wild collection of quirks, jokes and festive freak-outs that longevity was not assured when it debuted in 2013. Indeed, a New York Times review by Anita Gates baldly stated “It is not clear whether ‘Christmas on the Rocks’ could ever become a holiday classic, because 80 percent of the fun is in the discovery of what happened to these poor children, and audiences can discover it only once. But who knows?”
“These poor children” are iconic characters from such Christmas classics as “A Christmas Carol,” “A Christmas Story,” “The Nutcracker” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” They’re grown up now and wandering, one at a time, into a neighborhood bar to pour their hearts out. The happy endings of their childhood adventures have not led to much. A kindly old bartender (now played by Tom Bloom, in his second season with the show) listens, gives advice and occasionally wanders into the bar’s back room to wash his hands or remove a Christmas ornament that’s been shoved in his mouth.
In recent years, scenes featuring Cindy Lou Who from “The Grinch That Stole Christmas” and Susan Walker from “Miracle on 34th Street” have been removed, making way for new playlets starring Karen from the cartoon “Frosty the Snowman” and Zuzu from “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Each scene in “Christmas on the Rocks” is written by a different playwright, including such heavyweights as Theresa Rebeck, John Cariani and Jeffrey Hatcher. Hartford-area playwright Jacques LaMarre has two in the mix: the Zuzu one “A Miserable Life” and the sensitive closing Charlie Brown bit “Merry Christmas, Blockhead.”
Perhaps the model example of this rare theatrical form is Edwin Sanchez’s “Still Nuts About Him,” concerning Clara from “The Nutcracker.” It’s got all the elements: cartoonish physical humor, a funny accent (in this case Russian), cheap puns and one-liners, some real character development, a touch of morality and a glimmer of hope.
The hilarious whatever-happened-to angle is only a small part of the happiness that “Christmas on the Rocks” brings.
Jenn Harris, in her fifth year playing the show’s female characters, is still a whirlwind of shouts, laughs, shrieks and wild gestures. She’s got exactly the right comedy instincts for this material. The scenes don’t work if you’re allowed to think about them too hard, and Harris is a brassy, breezy distraction.
The big excitement this year is that a new male actor had to be found for the show when a film commitment meant that Matthew Wilkas couldn’t return for his fourth season. Wilkas and Harris are so embedded in “Christmas on the Rocks” that they even co-wrote one of its newer scenes, the frantic social-media Frosty the Snowman take “My Name is KAREN!”
So Randy Harrison has some big elf-boots to fill. The “Queer as Folk” TV star, whom Connecticut theatergoers saw as Andy Warhol in the premiere of the mystery musical “Pop!” at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2009, comes to Hartford fresh from a national tour of the Roundabout Theater revival of “Cabaret.” (That tour, which played Providence in January, completely bypassed Connecticut.)
Harrison is boyish as ever. He bears a striking resemblance to the equally fair-haired and big-grinned Wilkas, which makes comparisons inevitable. Harrison hasn’t mastered Charlie Brown’s arms-outstretched-head-lowered stance of grief-stricken resignation the way Wilkas has, but he beats him in the art of the cheap-animation leg-shuffle. Harrison might even be peppier than Wilkas when hopping atop bar stools and cuddling the bartender as Hermey, dentist friend of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s especially touching as a sour, misanthropic Tiny Tim in Theresa’s Rebeck’s well-thought-through (though rather preachy) “God Bless Us Every One.”
Everything about “Christmas on the Rocks” remains adorably weird and wonderful, from the inspired choice of pre-show music (the Bill Nighy-crooned Christmas single from “Love, Actually”) to the “turn off your cell phones” announcement (“If you thought you were at “A Christmas Carol” you’re in the wrong place — but you’ve already missed that curtain so you might as well stay here”) to Tom Bloom’s avuncular bartender who thinks he’s seen it all, but suffers through more shocking Christmas visitations than several Scrooges.
This strange, sweet, booze-soaked adult-themed pile of pop culture parodies, which brings jaded modern irreverence to some of our most cherished childhood Christmas tales, has itself become something to cherish and look forward to. It’s a unique theater creation — campy, corny, cockeyed, crass, kooky and completely Christmassy.
CHRISTMAS ON THE ROCKS — conceived and directed by Rob Ruggiero, featuring short plays by John Cariani, Jeffrey Hatcher, Jacques Lamarre, Theresa Rebeck, Edwin Sanchez and Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas — runs through Dec. 23 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 and 6:30 p.m. The Dec. 21 show is at 9:30 p.m. instead of 8 p.m. Tickets are $45 to $70. 860-527-7838, theaterworkshartford.org.