Hartford’s TheaterWorks is serving up its traditional Christmas special on the rocks with a minor change in the ingredients this holiday season.
It’s like laughing with friends over a drink, or may as well be with the familiar and realistic bar set decked out with Christmas decor from the infamous leg lamp to twinkle lights. The bar is described in the program as “a local bar in a lonely corner of the comos, Christmas Eve.”
The actors are the same as last year. Ronn Carroll is the warm, welcoming and fatherly bartender – our host of sorts for the evening as multiple grown-up Christmas characters stumble across his bar one-by-one and talk to him about their holiday woes.
Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas show their versatility playing all of the Christmas character roles.
Harris introduces a new character to the series of vignettes, each written by different playwright. She swaps Cindy Lou Who for Karen from the animated version of “Frosty the Snowman” in a very modern new media infused scene entitled “My Name is KAREN!” that she collaborated on writing with Wilkas. She presents a bitter, fame-crazed Karen, who is furious with Frosty for how everyone knows his name and fails to give her due credit for saving him. Fleeing the police after snowman-napping a melted Frosty in a bucket, she bursts into the charming but empty holiday pub on Christmas Eve. She holds our beloved bartender hostage as she live-streams a video blog of sorts, yelling to the world that she is KAREN and denouncing Frosty. The scene has added visual intrigue with two projected screens on the side displaying what seems to be the live broadcast, with Karen’s face hilariously close to the screen.
The other vignettes are the same as year’s past, but darling. Audio of different Christmas movies plays to simulate the bartender flipping through channels watching them. Wilkas opens the show playing a nostalgic and depressed Ralphie from “A Christmas Story” in “All Grown Up” by John Cariani. He sets up the plot of several Christmas icons coming to life, entering the real world from their stories. It’s a very quick explanation the bartender is quick to accept and that we’re supposed to believe. The magic of Christmas, you know. The scene has a tapestry of popular lines from the movie woven into the dialogue. Wilkas’s re-enactment of Ralphie’s first introduction to the leg lamp got a lot of laughs.
Wilkas later plays a flamboyant, sassy, hyper and spiteful dentist elf Hermey , who describes taking down fame-hogging Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer in “Say it Glows” by Jeffrey Hatcher. It’s one of the most lively scenes in Wilkas’s expressiveness and the physicality that he puts into the animated elf. It’s his most high-energy character, as many of the others are much more depressed.
He also plays a downtrodden, unappreciative Tiny Tim in “God Bless Us Everyone” by Theresa Rebeck – English accent and all.
The stories alternate between male and female protagonists. Harris’s characters are the more obscure of the Christmas characters – which makes you realize how many holiday stories have male main characters. If you’re seeing the show for the first time, it’s always fun to try to figure out who each character is. Before Karen, she starts off as the cutest little girl in the world – Sue – from “A Miracle on 34th Street” in “The Cane in the Corner” depicting the stressful life of a single working mom. She’s a realtor now and buried in her job and cellphone. The scene has one of the more uplifting endings, closing with hope, though most of the characters come to some self-realizations that even slightly pull them out of their slumps.
Harris has more comical roles in the show – particularly her scene as Clara from “The Nutcracker” in “Still Nuts About Him” by Edwin Sanchez. I enjoyed her Russian accent and when she maniacally smashes peanuts in the rage of a jealous, overlooked wife – she’s married to the Nutcracker.
The last vignette, “Merry Christmas, Blockhead” by Jacques Lamarre wraps the show up very nicely with an uplifting ending. It’s the only scene that Harris and Wilkas appear in together. Wilkas presents a Charlie Brown who hasn’t changed at all in his depressed demeanor – now married to Lucy (his sister Sally is married to Schroeder). The scene starts off very sad, particular when you hear what happened to Snoopy. Harris’s entrance as Little Red-haired girl changes the tone of the scene as she and Charlie Brown interact. Their dance is so cute and brings back the child in all of us, closing the show with more hope for the future.
Carroll’s bartender is the only character who appears in all the scenes. He’s like our narrator and has a certain all-knowingness about him. It’s interesting how his character has more sympathy for some characters than others. He’s endearing with some of them and gets frustrated with others who he yells at, particularly Clara and Tiny Tim. He walks out of the room during Hermie’s monologue because he’s so ridiculous and we acknowledge his annoyance. Just like the characters are timeless, so is he – almost like he is Father Christmas. His cane is placed in the corner, so could he be Santa?
Rob Ruggiero is the returning director, who put the original show together at least a couple years ago. Last year, he mentioned considering adding Zuzu from “It’s a Wonderful Life” as a character. I’d also love to see Rusty or Audrey from “Christmas Family Vacation,” Kevin from “Home Alone” and the little boy in “Love Actually” too – and Rob, if you’re reading this, I’d love to write a vignette for future consideration.
“Christmas on the Rocks” is a TheaterWorks original production and is a holiday tradition with a twist that you won’t want to miss! If you are familiar with all of the Christmas stories represented in it, you’ll connect with it and laugh the most.
More information about “Christmas on the Rocks” is available on the TheaterWorks website at http://theaterworkshartford.org. The show runs through Dec. 23.