You cant go wrong with Ron Megee on roller skates.
Last year, as Rhoda, The Bad Seedlings homicidal moppet, Megee done up with golden braids, rose-blush cheeks and a pinafore as ruffled as the south side of a hen elevated a bit of roller-skating into a slapstick essay on the dangers we face when gravity joins forces with wheels. In just a few seconds, his Rhoda went from girlish show pony to rolling disaster, first gliding about the stage and then losing control, crashing with her long legs splayed out and her wheels still spinning. Then, even better, she tried to get up.
Megees gift is his blend of grace and abandon. At the time, Megees performance on skates seemed just one highlight among many in that show. But it stuck with me, in the back of my mind, and it kept making me giggle as I drank my way though the American Heartlands Every Christmas Story Ever Told, a production with sense enough to put Megee on skates but not wit enough to send him crashing.
Every Christmas Story is one of those fast-moving shows, like The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged), in which actors dash satirically through libraries of familiar material. Megee stars with the funny Martin English and a grating Ken Remmert, who plays one of those dumb-but-pure characters standard in sitcoms and bad plays the guy who, for the sake of punch lines, surpasses the limits of human stupidity but then is presented as a naïf wiser than the rest of us. Its Remmerts imbecile character who gives us the Linus moment from A Charlie Brown Christmas, declaiming Christs nativity from center stage. The implication? Youd have to be an idiot to believe this stuff.
Throughout the show, entire set pieces fall flat. Reporters covering the Macys Thanksgiving parade crack confusingly about Justin Timberlakes dick. A game show about fruitcake is as unfunny as it sounds. A long conflation of A Christmas Carol with Its a Wonderful Life has its moments, especially when English switches between Scrooge and Jimmy Stewart, but it never connects. Paul Hough and Georgianna Londres wonderful costumes score more laughs than the writing.
So, were left with performances. In Megees case, thats almost enough. Running through the old Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special, he is, in quick succession, a dainty lady reindeer, the top elf in Santas workshop, a tutting Mrs. Clause, grizzled prospector Yukon Cornelius, and at last a daft jack-in-the-box. Each is funny and finely crafted, the result of a skilled performer pushing himself, and its the shows best moment when he is forced to run back through them all again.
Less good, but typical of the writing, are the sub-Leno jokes about whats on this Island of Misfit Toys: a Pee-wee Herman Pull Toy and a Crying Game Barbie. Like most comedies these days, Every Christmas Story snickers at homosexuality. In a Late Night parody, characters often struggle with gayness, trying to hide it but usually humping anything they can anyway. The joke is that homosexuality is much more common than some people admit.
Here, Megees character (named, sadly, Ron Megee) is gay. Hes wholly unswishy, but Englishs character (named, sadder still, Martin English) is terrified of him nonetheless, refusing his hugs and bitching often about how no man will kiss him. He gets laughs doing this and also audience sympathy. The joke is not that homosexuality is common but that its aberrant and that we should flee it and this Ron Megee. This is something new: a show urging us to avoid Kansas Citys nimblest comic actor, the man who is the only reason to see this labored, pandering mess in the first place.
On their way to competing with Megee for ubiquity, Daniel Doss and Sarah Mae McElroy both stage musicals or star in them. Their team-up production of Jason Robert Brown's Songs for a New World is their most ambitious project yet. Directed by Doss, it's brought off with simple polish: a grand piano, six strong singers and a host of rich story-songs by one of musical theater's best composers.
More a concert than a musical, New World is nothing more than loosely related songs, some grand and some yearning for grandeur. Newcomer Andrea Boswell builds a couple of comic songs into unforgettable epics, demonstrating a sour-candy voice and superior comic timing. Veteran Damron Russell Armstrong scrapes movingly at the top of his range during a piece set on one of Christopher Columbus' ships a number that feels wildly out of place because the rest of the show is concerned mostly with the strained romances of modern urbanites. But after half a dozen of these songs, you might feel overwhelmed and not inclined to invest yourself again in another new character's problems. (That the singers are often over-microphoned doesn't help. McElroy's solos pulverized me.)
Still, this production is essential for fans of Brown's and recommended for those preoccupied with the state of the modern musical. Fans of dramatic coherence should stay home and hope that someday Megee on skates is uploaded to YouTube.