It’s not often that the words “cigareets and whiskey and wild, wild women” turn up in a Christmas show.
But Chaps! A Jingle Jangle Christmas is no ordinary Christmas show – and that’s all to the good.
There’s no bah-humbugging in Chaps!, no errant nuns, no drummer boys or Macy’s Santa Clauses or foul-mouthed reindeer. All you’ll see on the Orlando Shakespeare Theater stage is a bunch of singing cowboys – or actually a bunch of singing Brits dressed as cowboys, trying valiantly to bolster the Christmas spirit through the London blitz when the real singing cowboys don’t show up for a radio show being broadcast live to the troops at the front.
If you think that sounds sentimental, well, that’s the road not taken by director Patrick Flick and his nifty band of actors and musicians, who rely nearly all of the time on a whole lot of comic chops and some major musical talent. What they’ve wound up with is as quirky a Christmas show as you’ll find – funny, nonsensical and just sweet enough to get you through the holidays with a smile on your face.
The setting is a BBC radio studio in 1944, where the production staff is waiting for a band from Texas to show up and perform their show for the troops. The problem is none of the Texans turn up but Mabel Carter (Melissa Mason), the stage manager – which forces the stiff-upper-lipped Brits to join Mabel in putting on the show themselves.
So you hear a lot of cowboy songs – “I’ve Got Spurs That Jingle Jangle Jingle,” “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds” – sung in accents that range from plummy (Philip Nolen, as the announcer Leslie Briggs-Stratton, vaingloriously rolling his r’s) to lowbrow (Michael Gill, as the Cockney sound engineer Archie Leitch, desperately broadening his vowels but forgetting not to over-enunciate his t’s). You get terrific work from a three-piece band (Ted Henderson on guitar, Matt Tonner on bass and Daniel Flick on fiddle and mandolin), with Gill out front also on guitar. And you get just a hint of sweetness when Mason sings a beautiful, simple version of “White Cliffs of Dover,” blended with the rest of the cast on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
The show – with a handsome radio-studio set by Bert Scott, which has its own surprises in store, and plenty of cowboyesque costumes by Mel Barger – doesn’t bear a whole lot of exploration. There may be no clear reason why all these fearful BBC types drop their inhibitions and plunge into their Texas twangs, and said twangs, along with the British accents they’re wrapped around, come and go with regularity.
But it doesn’t much matter when you can sit there in the audience and watch the mobile faces of a band of really good actors – the expressive eyebrows of Nolen and of Michael Edwards as the radio show’s veteran ham; the poker face of the nearly mute Brandon Roberts as Stan, the sound-effects guy. Mark Whitten is full of energy as Miles Shadwell, the show’s desperate young producer; Gill and Mason have enough musical panache to do a show all by themselves.
And Nolen, one of the most versatile of Orlando’s actors, seems to throw himself effortlessly into the role of the nincompoop, the stuffed shirt who lets loose so recklessly that he doesn’t mind showing up on stage as a bargirl named Belle Starlet, looking for all the world like Captain Hook in drag.
That’s a sight you’re not likely to see in most Christmas shows, and it may not be a vision you want to hold onto for many Christmases to come. But this time around, it’s every bit as appealing as a vision of sugar plums – not quite so sugary, but welcome all the while.
- What: Orlando Shakespeare Theater production of Jahnna Beecham-Malcolm Hillgartner comedy with music.
- Where: Margeson Theater, Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St., Orlando.
- When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Dec. 26 (also, 2 p.m. Dec. 8 and 22).
- Running time: One hour, 45 minutes.
- Cost: $20-$38 most performances, $15 Wednesday matinees, $20 age 30 and under on Dec. 17.
- Call: 407-447-1700 Ext. 1.
- Online: orlandoshakes.org.
Photos: Top right, Mark Whitten, Michael Gill and Michael Edwards. Next right: Mark Whitten and Michael Edwards. Next right: The band and Michael Gill. Next right, Brandon Roberts. Next right, Philip Nolen. Bottom left, Melissa Mason and Michael Gill. Photos courtesy of Orlando Shakespeare Theater.
Thanks to Michael Edwards for calling my attention to a typo in the review. The correct date of the play’s setting is 1944.
Copyright 2010 by Elizabeth Maupin