SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS--THE MUSICAL
SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN
at Annoyance Theatre
Jill and Faith Soloway's The Real Live Brady Bunch made it seem way too easy. All you had to do was take some easily recognized cultural artifact--an annoyingly shallow hit TV series, say, or an endlessly recycled holiday special, or some cult classic in the public domain--translate it verbatim to the stage, and voila! instant camp. But there's a lot more to this appropriation business than meets the eye, as Andrew J. Dahlman and Rob MacDonald discovered earlier this year after they opened their relentlessly unfunny late-night comedy Glen? Or Glenda?, based on Edward D. Wood Jr.'s odd film of almost the same name.
Which is why the more I see of Sean Abley's work, the more I think he (and his gang of coconspirators at the Factory Theater) are onto something. True, their first long-running late-night hit, Reefer Madness, was little more than a Soloway-style word-for-word stage adaptation. But ever since Attack of the Killer B's opened last March, it's been clear that Abley et al are trying to do something more ambitious than The Real Live Brady Bunch's mild, ambivalent satire. (I never could figure out whether the Soloways meant to mock or revel in the sitcom's hokey dialogue, obvious plots, and early-70s fashions.)
In Attack of the Killer B's Abley gathered together scenes from a dozen sci-fi and horror films to create a nightmarish but very funny pastiche about a woman trapped in a B-movie world; it was as much a comment on obsessive bad-film fans as it was a satire of/homage to the genre. Later in the year Abley directed David Springer, Marssie Mencotti, and Nicholas Tremulis's musical version of Roger Corman's brilliant black comedy A Bucket of Blood; it was a nice effort, but neither as funny as Corman's original nor fully conceived as a musical (Tremulis and Springer just didn't write enough songs).
Abley's latest effort, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, marries the best of Killer B's and Bucket of Blood. He's taken a film dubbed "one of the worst movies of any kind ever made" by The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film and used it as the jumping-off point for a very funny, camp musical comedy.
The film's plot is pure holiday B-movie dreck: the Martians, a race of nerd types, kidnap Santa Claus because their civilization lacks that jolly holiday spirit. In captivity Santa, as befits a man of the red cloth, ends up conquering the Martians with love: he sets up the Mars equivalent of his north-pole factory, teaches Martian children the spirit of Christmas, and even ordains a Martian Santa.
Abley's musical does much more than revel in kitsch cinema. As the show's book writer, he's added two satiric subplots, one concerning an all-girl group in danger of breaking up before they can release their holiday novelty number, the other involving Senator Joe McCarthy and cold-war hysteria (the story's set in 1954). Every time the Martians make a move, the people of Your Town, USA, blame the Russians. In one of the finer moments of a show full of fine moments, a woman makes an impassioned plea to Khrushchev to return Santa Claus ("If there's a heart in that godless body of yours").
Even more impressive is how lyricists Abley, Bo Blackburn, and Amy Seeley, working with Dave Springer's music, have transformed the movie into a musical. Easily avoiding the mistakes of Bucket of Blood--songs that slow down the show, lyrics that don't advance the story, scenes that scream out to be musicalized--Santa Claus is as true a musical as Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's Little Shop of Horrors. (Though, to be fair, Ashman's lyrics are wittier and more polished.)
What Abley's show lacks in polish it more than makes up for in the quality of its cast, most of whom deliver the sort of totally committed, energetic performance for which the Factory Theater should be known but isn't. There seems to be something about the witty silliness of Factory shows that brings out the latent comedian in performers. Which leads me to my only complaint: with a running time of a little more than an hour, this show ends far too quickly.
I wish I could say the same about this year's edition of Metraform's annual Soloway-esque appropriation of a holiday classic, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. Based on the animated holiday TV special of the same name, Metraform's Santa Claus lacks both the dramatic coherence and satiric edge that made previous appropriations, such as the brilliant live version of A Charlie Brown Christmas, more than mere stage re-creations.
Part of the problem is that in adapting the TV show to the stage, director Tony Stavish and company were clearly tripped up by its extraordinarily strange story line. Essentially a creation myth tricked out as a Christmas special, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town relates the bogus but not entirely unfamiliar story of a young foundling (Claus) who's raised by elves in "one of the northern countries" and who, over the course of an epic struggle to bring toys to the children of Sombertown, becomes a hero.
Unfortunately, the original narrative is so silly, digressive, and full of holes that it raises more questions than it answers. We never, for example, find out why Claus's first name is Santa. Or what happens to the evil Burgermeister Meister Burger of Sombertown, who for two-thirds of the special does all he can to thwart Santa's efforts to bring toys to town.
It comes as no surprise that Stavish and company had trouble constructing a coherent show from such material. What is surprising is that the stage version seems less coherent than the TV special. In part that's because of Stavish's misguided decision to break the story into numerous disconnected and highly distracting blackouts. And it doesn't help that the performance styles of the cast vary so greatly: some perform quite broadly, most notably Mike Monterestelli, wonderful as the Burgermeister; others win laughs with a more focused, restrained style, including Susan Messing as a bright-eyed elf; and still others have wittily decided to reproduce the original jerky puppet movements. Each performance technique would be fine alone, but the clash of styles tears apart an already chaotic show.
Watching this incredibly inconsistent show--with flashes of comic brilliance followed by moments of surprising awkwardness or humorless vulgarity--it's hard not to wonder whether the real problem isn't that performing a TV show verbatim onstage, which seemed like such a fresh idea in the late 80s, when How the Grinch Stole Christmas followed close on the heels of The Real Live Brady Bunch, has become just another stale formula.