If those fine people at freeFall Theatre would just promote Every Christmas Story Ever Told as a play for children, they’d avoid the sort of disappointment that adults are bound to feel watching this well-meaning but tedious exercise. After all, most of the elements of this busy comedy by John K. Alvarez, Michael Carleton, and James FitzGerald are perfect for kids between the age of, oh, 6 and 10. There’s the artificial verve of the three actors, who work as hard at staying upbeat as clowns at a distractible infant’s birthday party. There’s the smattering of educational content, when the audience is briefly told how Christmas is celebrated in other cultures, and flags of the mentioned nations are projected helpfully against a back screen. There’s the humor on the level of SpongeBob or Barney the Dinosaur, when Gustav the Green-Nosed Reingoat is introduced, or when The Dating Game is turned into a silly contest about Christmas fruitcake. And there’s just the right amount of kinetic, inventive spectacle to hold young attention spans in thrall, from zany costumes (by Eric Davis) to colorful digital projections. I’m serious when I say this show should be marketed for kids: like something at Disney, it would charm the ankle-biters while benefiting from the wise patience of their grown-up caretakers. And where the allusions are too advanced — for example, to Bob Dylan’s A Child’s Christmas With Whales and the inevitable “Moby Nick” — well, Mommy or Daddy can explain on the drive home. After all, a reference or two to big-people culture can pave the way for later attainments.
But freeFall hasn’t advertised this show as a children’s treat, and so one waits at first for an intelligence that never materializes. The production’s premise is that we’re at a showing of A Christmas Carol, when one actor (Michael Ursua) is told by a colleague (Sara DelBeato) that Dickens’ parable has been done to death and that they’ve got to try something new. When a third actor (Dexter Jones) climbs out of his stage coffin to agree, we’re ready for a clever send-up of Christmas narratives, something like that delectable confection, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). But that’s not what ensues; what we get instead are those earnest educational tidbits explaining Chanukah and Kwanzaa, Dutch Christmas and German Christmas, and those vapid parodies of the Grinch story, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, and the tale of Frosty the Snowman. Act Two is a little more challenging, with a would-be-comic merging of Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life, and at the end there’s an interesting attempt to make one song out of a couple of dozen Christmas favorites. But long before this coda, it’s become clear that Every Christmas Story has little to offer even an adolescent intelligence. If I hadn’t been obligated as a critic to stay, I would have left at intermission.
What about the acting? To be candid, it’s hard to say. It may well be that Ursua, Jones and DelBeato are brilliant thespians capable of playing Long Day’s Journey Into Night with scorching, stunning honesty. But as directed by Patrick Ryan Sullivan (a fine actor himself), these three clown around so manically, one gets very few glances at their potential in a play of substance. Still, a few points can be ventured. Ursua is the sincere one, the guy who wants to be responsible and dignified but finds himself forced into an exasperating series of wacky events. Jones is the showman, a gifted scene-stealer and tap-dancer who politely steps back for his fellow performers, but knows that he’s rightfully every show’s master of ceremonies. And DelBeato is the born joker, the irrepressible comedienne who was repeatedly suspended from high school for laughing too boisterously in Human Physiology. The show’s set, by Davis and Tom Hansen, features giant cutouts representing Big Ben and Tower Bridge (our renegade actors are supposed to be playing Dickens, remember) as well as a large screen on which various colorful pictures are projected (a drawing of the original St. Nicholas, for example). Ursua is also the show’s music director, and plays piano skillfully when required.
Perhaps my most unexpected reaction upon seeing Every Christmas Show was nostalgia for... A Christmas Carol. After all, that old warhorse is appropriate for adults and children both, and its themes of moral fallenness and redemption, greed and charity, love and forgiveness are as deep as any audience — in any season — might welcome. Maybe it’s been performed too often; but reader, I missed it. I missed its maturity.
Come on back, Tiny Tim. And God bless us, every one.
Get all our theater news — along with updates on the latest happenings — by subscribing to Creative Loafing's weekly Do This newsletter.