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Hymn & Carol/Christmas With Elvis/'Twas the Night Before Christmas

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HYMN & CAROL

Medinah Stage Company

at the Project

CHRISTMAS WITH ELVIS

Snack Stix Productions

at Beat Kitchen and Theatre

'TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS

Growing Stage Children's Theater Company

at Second City Northwest

Christmas shows tend to be too solemn, too sentimental, or both. Then there are Hymn & Carol and Christmas With Elvis, which aim for the ridiculous. Both go too far. The most effective parts of Hymn & Carol are the most solemn--the ridiculous interludes merely interrupt the sublime Christmas songs. And Christmas With Elvis would benefit from a generous dose of sentimentality: here the characters merely exchange quips and gross out the audience.

Hymn & Carol is mostly a musical revue consisting of 16 songs, ranging from traditional carols like "Little Town of Bethlehem" to the incredibly eccentric "Turkey Lurkey Time," written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. They're sung in multipart harmony by the ten cast members, with little or no accompaniment. The songs by themselves would make a pleasant but solemn show, so to lighten things up Paul V. Smith, a Chicago actor and director, has written eight monologues for the cast, each of which adds a modern slant to the biblical account of the birth of Christ. The first monologue is delivered by a woman (Jane McEneaney) attending a rock concert by prophets--including the granddaddy of them all, the prophet Isaiah. "I mean, when Isaiah started out, nobody was doing prophecy," says the devoted fan. "He started this whole thing, this whole craze." The second monologue is delivered by a woman (Lynne Magnavite) who was helping Mary shop for a wedding gown when Gabriel appeared in the dressing room, wings and all, to announce that Mary would become the mother of God. "I was filled with jealousy," the woman says. "Why not me? I mean, I wasn't a virgin, no, but let's not get technical. I used to be a virgin."

By the third monologue, in which a bartender (Tracy Adams) recounts a long story told to him by a customer about an angel appearing to Joseph, I found myself nervously counting the cast members, wondering how long the show would last if each one got a ten-minute monologue.

The monologues do provide a clever treatment of this tired old material. Smith retells the familiar story of Joseph and Mary finding no room at the inn, for instance, from the point of view of a beleaguered citizen of Bethlehem (Smith) whose house is packed with relatives returning to their birthplace to pay their taxes. In the midst of the bedlam in his little two-bedroom Cape Cod, a man appears at the front door with a very pregnant woman named Carol. "Did I say her name was Carol?" Smith interrupts himself, slyly suggesting the double meaning of "Carol" in the title. "Yeah, I think her name was Carol." Of course he lets them stay in the stable out back. But later that night one of the dogs knocks over a Christmas tree, starting a fire that quickly engulfs the little house. The monologue ends with the man and his relatives watching the flames light up the street while an incredibly bright star lights up the sky.

These monologues are not only much too long but are written in the cute, scatterbrained style of babble popularized by Woody Allen. It wears thin very fast, beginning to spoil the sublime mood created by the songs. (Cast member Alan Chambers orchestrated. Other cast members are Jill Reznick Meier, Richard Williams, Liz Donathan, Victoria Hellyer, and Carol Wilson.)

Smith modeled Hymn & Carol on the Church of England's Festival of Lessons and Carols, a seasonal service that blends Bible readings with Christmas songs. Smith's humorous "lessons" certainly mitigate the songs' seriousness. Now if he just trims a bit of the humor and allows the solemnity of the songs to come through more, Hymn & Carol might just make a pleasant holiday confection.

Christmas With Elvis, on the other hand, simply doesn't work--it's a premise in search of a plot. The premise is promising, however. Trudy, a lonely divorced woman suffering from an eating disorder (she seems to subsist on Evian water and a passion for Elvis), finds herself alone on Christmas Eve in her dismal apartment. Her ex-husband leaves a message on her answering machine informing her that he's getting married again, and just as she crumples into the fetal position she receives a visit from Elvis himself, who satisfies her pent-up sexual craving.

Playwright Terry Spencer seems to have no idea where she wants to go with this idea, however. Elvis searches the apartment absentmindedly for drugs and alcohol, and keeps trying to seduce Trudy. She dithers and frets but finally submits, realizing that she's stumbled upon the ultimate safe sex. "When you died there was no AIDS!" she screams in sudden realization. When Elvis orders pizza and a case of Jack Daniels, the delivery boy recognizes him, which brings a mob of Elvis worshipers--and a handsome detective--to Trudy's apartment.

What little humor this production has comes primarily from the actors. Second City alum Mindy Bell, improvising extensively, gives Trudy a near-terminal case of the jitters, and Mark Nelson does a hilarious impersonation of Elvis as a fat, middle-aged addict who thinks he still looks sexy in his sequined bell-bottoms.

But for Christmas With Elvis to work, Trudy must reach a crisis and change. Like George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life--the film that appears on Trudy's TV when she switches it on in the beginning--she must discover something about herself, something that will stop the binging and purging (which she describes in gruesome detail). Sure, such an outcome would make the play as sentimental as a Frank Capra film, but in her own offbeat way, that seems to be precisely what the playwright is aiming at.

Two years ago I reviewed the premiere of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, now being staged by the Growing Stage Children's Theater Company at Second City Northwest in Rolling Meadows. Although the poster for this production quotes that review, it neglects to mention that I used words such as "slapdash" and "haphazard" to describe the show.

Not much has changed. As I said two years ago, the story by Charles Mitchell about the corruption of Santa by a greedy entrepreneur isn't bad. With an inventive director, outstanding actors, a good orchestra, and some quality costumes, Mitchell's adaptation might work. In this production, however, the performances are either mumbled and awkward or loud and cartoonish. The musical accompaniment, provided by a synthesizer, often overpowers the singing. And the props and costumes look thrown together. In short, this is the same slapdash, haphazard production I saw two years ago.

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