At a time when current events make the world seem very dark and sick, the holidays remind us to reminisce with old friends, break out the carols, and bake a batch of Grandma's legendary cookies. One recipe to such a cruel world can be found in the District Theatre's current production Big Rock Candy Christmas. A sequel to last year's Big Rock Candy Mountain, this Christmas-flavored chapter brings back the same characters from the original with a new mission, new music, and even a few new faces.
The loosely constructed plot is a vehicle to string along a hammed-up, melodramatic story that once again sees the Owensboro Little Theatre put in jeopardy by another catastrophe. This time, the theatre is about to open its holiday production of A Christmas Carol when, just as the audience is being seated, word arrives that the cast has fallen ill and won't be able to perform. Called on to save the day is the same Depression-era bluegrass band of convicts who assemble like a bizzaro version of the Avengers to provide entertainment and keep the theatre open. And as the plot unfolds, we learn that not only are the actors ill, but the mayor has been poisoned and presents for the town's needy children have been stolen, events orchestrated by the town's villainous bitch Velda (played by a wickedly evil Linda Ruebling).
Director/playwright Tristan Layne Tapscott resurrects most of the performers from the original show - including band members Mark Ruebling, Rocky Kampling, Kyle Jecklin, Tom Vaccaro, and Anthony Natarell - and fills in the cast with a few new faces to spice things up. When the lights come up, the audience is quickly brought up-to-speed on the shenanigans of Big Rock Candy Christmas' predecessor through a hilariously lightning-quick monologue delivered by the Owensboro theatre's resident techie Willie. Brant Peitersen's take on Willie is at times amusing and at other times laugh-out-loud funny. He is a wonderful addition to the cast and his Opera Man version of the holiday favorite "Up on the Housetop" sets the scene for how over-the-top this production will become.
My favorite performance from Saturday's show was Chris Tracy's as George, the perfect straight man to the lunacy as he attempts to hold the show-within-the-show together. When his opportunity to take center-stage came, it was the most interesting and magical moment of the evening, as Tracy's rich and rounded baritone voice resonated beautifully when he crooned "O Little Town of Bethlehem" to the melody of the Animals' "House of the Rising Sun. As odd as those ingredients may sound, it all blends beautifully, with Tracy's vocals, the classic lyrics, and the haunting melody all mixing together like a smooth, warm cup of Christmas cocoa.
Another highlight was when the band pulled together to sing "Silent Night." Although it seemed awkward that this reverent carol was placed in the middle of the show, Mark Ruebling's bandleader Levi tried hard to set the right tone and allow a quiet, reflective moment amidst the slapstick chaos. (I would have liked to have seen more of Ruebling throughout the night. His dialect, overall character, and musicality were refreshing and enjoyable each time he was featured.) Unfortunately, the set-up for "Silent Night" was disturbed by the ongoing antics of Natarelli's Clyde. Natarelli appeared to truly enjoy chewing up the proverbial scenery with his frenetic gestures and Jim Carrey-esque facial expressions, and there were clearly times when his campy characterizations were spot-on. But there were just as many when it would have been wise for him to be more judicious in his mugging.
One of the funniest moments came as the band played "The 12 Days of Christmas." For me, this particular song can be like fingernails on a chalkboard. However, when acted out by Mike Kelly, Aaron Lord, and Naterelli here, the song teetered on being out-of-control funny. Not only did the comedians have their timing nearly perfect, but they must have lost 10 pounds in sweat as they mimed each of the 12 days. (I will never be able to shake the image of Lord's Melvin character being milked on the eighth day.) By the time the song was complete, the performers were drenched, and looked as if they had emerged from a holiday-themed mosh pit.
The entire production was reminiscent of simpler times, with a couple tablespoons of a Bob Hope holiday special, a pinch of Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas, and a half-cup of Tennessee Ernie Ford blended to make this a potential new holiday tradition for the District Theatre. If you are looking to taste something a bit sweeter and sappier from the usual holiday-theatre fare, then you may very well enjoy a big bite of Big Rock Candy Christmas.
Big Rock Candy Christmas runs at the District Theatre (1724 Fourth Avenue, Rock Island) through November 22, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)235-1654 or visiting DistrictTheatre.com.