Does a Gaslight Theatre show have to be funny? For a very long time, Gaslight has specialized in send-ups, first of old Western melodramas and eventually of all sorts of genre movies and TV shows. The scripts are full of jokes and splattered with anachronistic asides. They have always been funny, even if the jokes tend to be groan-inducing.
But Gaslight's current holiday show, Christmas in the Big Apple, isn't very funny. It's not that writer-director Peter Van Slyke has gone for laughs and failed miserably; it seems that he simply hasn't really tried for much humor at all. The show is designed to be lively, heartwarming and clean fun for the family, but the laughs are few and far between.
So I sat there a couple of weeks ago, stuffing free popcorn into my mouth and wondering if something had gone wrong, or if I had become more of a curmudgeon than usual, or if Van Slyke had merely changed his approach for the holiday season. Ultimately, I opted for the last of those possibilities, but even so, the cast was obviously working very hard to whip up some audience excitement in material that wasn't as goofy as they were accustomed to performing. Getting the audience to shout out a tagline like, "It's gonna be a hit, I just know it!" is more trouble than it's worth. They were going through the obligatory Gaslight gestures to little point or effect.
Even if Christmas in the Big Apple isn't exactly a laugh riot, it's not very serious, either. Seems that a nefarious 1930s socialite named Vonda De Cringe wants to take control of Pennypacker's Department Store, which is renowned throughout New York City for its Christmas spirit. Pennypacker, meanwhile, is sinking money he should be saving to pay off Vonda's loan into a Christmas musical written by his head elevator operator, Jimmy Doogan. Vonda hires a down-on-his-luck Broadway sharpie named Ace and his moll, Trixie, to dampen the department store's Christmas spirit, which they intend to do by booking a bookie named Moe as a saboteur in a Santa suit. Let's not forget Jimmy's love interest, Vivian, who is Mr. Pennypacker's secretary, and Vonda De Cringe's chauffeur-henchman, Chesterfield. Oh, and there's a little orphan girl, too.
There are enough pop-culture references here to make you burp your eggnog: Miracle on 34th Street meets Bad Santa with a subplot from, say, Babes on Broadway, plus a low-grade gangster straight outta Guys and Dolls, plus a store owner who resembles Daddy Warbucks, plus a villainess who looks like Catherine Zeta-Jones getting pulled out of Chicago at the last minute to be recast as Cruella De Vil, but not before stealing one of Bette Davis' most famous lines, "What a dump!"
The absolute best thing about this show is the irrepressible Betsy Kruse-Craig as Cruella--I mean--Vonda De Cringe, a flamboyant, huge presence who saunters off with her every scene. In a way, she's too big for this show, which, in a departure for Gaslight, is concerned with fairly ordinary folks. But she's tremendous fun.
Not that there's anything wrong with the rest of the cast. Gaslight stalwarts Robert Shaw, Deborah Klingenfus, Joe Cooper, Mike Yarema, Maria Alburtus, David Orley and the long-absent Nick Seivert are their usual reliable selves, as are music director/pianist Linda Ackermann and her little band, all seeming to enjoy whatever Van Slyke throws at them. (Other actors alternate in the roles in some performances.) Nancy La Viola's choreography looks just a little more challenging than usual, and the cast members pull it off fine, although this ain't Busby Berkeley.
If in Christmas in the Big Apple, Van Slyke couldn't decide whether or not he really wanted to do a spoof, there's no question of intent in the evening's concluding olio, a send-up of the Lawrence Welk Show. Cooper has Welk's strange Norwegian-Minnesotan accent down pat; the women chirp the Lennon Sisters' harmonies just right, and I'm not sure what she has to do with Lawrence Welk, but Carol Burnett gets a wicked, wicked impersonation from Kruse-Craig. No doubt about it--this part of the show, at least, is funny.