ORLANDO — If there’s one thing that the holiday production at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater amply proves, it’s that the Christmas season has, for centuries, inspired writers, filmmakers, animators and other storytellers to create their own holiday epic, aimed at happily entrancing audiences into the spirit of the season.
If there’s one thing that guides so many of these creative efforts — Charles Dickens’ short story “A Christmas Story,” Frank Capra’s 1946 movie “It’s A Wonderful Life,” or the 1964 children’s TV movie “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” among many others — it’s heavy doses of sentimentality and exquisitely warm and fuzzy happy endings. Put your troubles aside, these sagas seem to say, and revel in the joyous spirit of Christmas time.
Orlando Shakes has done its share of sentimental holiday productions in the past, from an elaborate version of “A Christmas Carol” to a radio version of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” where skillful dramatic actors did their best to wring a nostalgic and tender tear from the eyes of audience members.
But if their latest production proves anything at all, it’s just how easily those past productions lend themselves to satire, not to mention big belly laughs. If there’s an audience for sugar-laced warm and fuzzy shows around the holidays, Shakes is equally aware of the wide audience for those who like razzing that sweet mood.
“Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!)” begins just like one of those traditional productions, with actor Timothy Williams starting to do what seems like a standard version of “A Christmas Carol” …. when fellow actor Michael Daly charges onstage to file a complaint. Isn’t everybody pretty much sick and tired of seeing “A Christmas Carol” every holiday season, he groans. Don’t community theaters do the same old shows every December, he laments.
Joined by fellow actor Christopher Patrick Mullen, they ask the audience to recommend other holiday shows that they could perform instead (a funny side note on the night I attended the performance: a child in the audience cried out “Die Hard”!), and our trio decides to reenact as many of the oldies-but-holiday-goodies as they can in 90 minutes. The result is, to put it mildly, a highly irreverent look at what we like to call “entertainment” this time of year.
The popular show, which the Shakes has staged in the past, is the Orlando Shakespeare Theater at its silliest. Written by Michael Carleton, James Fitzgerald and John K. Alvarez, the show spoofs not just classics like “Frosty the Snowman,” “How The Grinch Stole Christmas,” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” but also holiday songs. The gags range from laugh-out-loud hilarious to big smirk silly to complete groaners, but the mood is consistent: if it’s sentimental, it gets wildly targeted — and satirized. The results are enormously fun, to say the least.
The production had a decidedly improvisational feel, like the actors are making it up as they go along, although it’s also clear this is a well-structured comedy-variety show with carefully timed skits. Not surprisingly, the writers have updated the script in topical ways, with references to everything from Donald Trump’s election as president to Orlando-area intuitions like Theatre Downtown, the John DiDonna production of “Dickens by Candlelight” and playwright/actor Michael Wanzie, among many others.
Along the way, there are some inspired moments — a mix of “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” that goes back and forth between the two clearly stands out as the best. The three performers are more than up to the task that this kind of zany production demands, and manage to seem like they’re having great fun even while they’re working hard to be funny.
This isn’t the production for folks who like their holiday shows to be sweet and nostalgic, but it’s ideal for anyone who says “Bah! Humbug” to those kinds of shows and want something that sticks a rude thumb in the eye of all that sugar.
The show is being performed now through Dec. 31 in the Margeson Theater at the John and Rita Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St. in Orlando. There will be a Talk Back session with the cast on Sunday, Dec. 18 immediately following the show.
Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25-$50.
To learn more or for reservations, call 407-447-1700.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Koby’s New Home”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.