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By Richard Ades

Stephanie Shull, Julie Klein and Stacie Boord (from left) return as the Santa Babies in Holiday Hoopla, opening Thursday at Shadowbox Live (Shadowbox Live photo)

Stephanie Shull, Julie Klein and Stacie Boord (from left) return as the Santa Babies in Holiday Hoopla. (Shadowbox Live photo)

I lucked out. When I finally had time to catch Holiday Hoopla 2016, I arrived on a night when talented Columbus State students were offering American Sign Language interpretation.

It was beautiful effort. Not content to have a single interpreter gesticulate from the side of the stage, Shadowbox Live and Columbus State had worked out something far more elaborate. During the sketches, nearly every character was represented by a separate interpreter who took on that person’s personality while signing his or her lines. During the songs, interpreters swayed gracefully with the music while signing lyrics that even hearing patrons sometimes had trouble picking out.

If you want to see what Hoopla is like with sign interpretation, the service will be offered again at 7:30 Wednesday, Dec. 14. (Hearing-impaired patrons receive a $10 discount.)

Obviously, sign interpretation is most valuable for those who rely on it to understand the action, but I enjoyed it as a variation on a show that has been sticking to the same format for most of the past quarter century. Even without the interpretation, though, this Hoopla has much to recommend it.

Yes, most of the songs have been repeated annually for years, but they’ve become such an integral part of this local tradition that leaving them out would be unthinkable. A jazzy Merry Christmas Baby (sung by Stacie Boord), a bleak Hounds of Winter (sung by Leah Haviland), a forlorn The Old Man (sung by Stev Guyer): All are as gorgeous as they are indispensable.

Most important of all are the rousing instrumental Christmas in Sarajevo and the gospel-like Children Go Where I Send Thee. My only comment on the latter is that this year’s version could be even bigger, with still more singers added as it builds to its soul-stirring finale.

A TV host (Guillermo Jemmott, left) is shocked to hear a guest (Jimmy Mak) expound on why he believes Santa is an alien. (Shadowbox Live photo)

A TV host (Guillermo Jemmott, left) is shocked to hear a guest (Jimmy Mak) expound on why he believes Santa is an alien. (Shadowbox Live photo)

Among the skits, there are the expected duds and near-duds. One of them is the first, Your Own Personal Santa, in which a neighborhood meeting turns into a gripe session on parents’ odd Christmas traditions. Better is the following skit, Ancient Aliens, in which an eccentrically coifed Jimmy Mak shares his theory that Santa Claus is capable of superhuman feats because he actually hails from another planet.

In general, the sketches get better as the show goes on, particularly after intermission.

The Firstest Christmas, in which elementary-school kids present a musical depiction of the holiday’s roots, improves on a familiar Shadowbox theme by adding a satirical edge. Because they’re students at a Montessori school that refuses to rein in children’s creativity, teacher Mrs. Boddington (Katy Psenicka) is helpless to object when the kids stray from biblical accuracy. For instance, they have Mary (Haviland) arrive at the stable riding a certain red-nosed reindeer rather than a donkey. And, oh yes, the stable is located, not in Bethlehem, but at the North Pole.

More satire is invoked in Xmas Do Not Play List, about a radio disc jockey (David Whitehouse) who’s ordered to stop playing a slew of familiar Christmas tunes for fear they’ll offend viewers with precariously thin skins.

A series of short skits is built around a fictitious line of Hallmark “Honesty” cards that replace generic greetings with messages tailored to very specific—and very unpleasant—situations. Like the show as a whole, these get better as they go along.

As always, the Santa Babies (Julie Klein, Stephanie Shull and Boord) finish things off with their kitschy lounge act. Highlights include a seasonally adjusted and beautifully harmonized version of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, a dry-land synchronized swimming routine and the It’s Raining Men finale.

Then there’s the inevitable moment when they drag a male customer onstage in a suggestive routine that’s been repeated with nary a variation for the last 25 years. Watching this has long since become a tedious ordeal for me, but everyone else at the performance I attended seemed to be busting a gut.

One more tradition we can expect to return in Holiday Hoopla 2017.

Holiday Hoopla continues through Dec. 30 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. select Mondays-Thursdays, 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. select Fridays-Saturdays. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

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