At last Monday's well-attended preview performance of the Playcrafters Barn Theatre's Uh-Oh, Here Comes Christmas, most of the mostly senior audience seemed delighted by the show.
Adapted from more than a dozen Robert Fulghum tales, this revue elicited both good-natured laughs and big laughs, and the crowd willingly sang along to "Silent Night," and "ooh"-ed and "aah"-ed at an unexpected sprinkling of glitter. (And the audience was a feistier bunch than this might indicate; Monday's biggest guffaw came from the line "Move your ass, you son of a bitch!") It's hard to begrudge a production - especially a sincere, nonsecular, holiday-themed one - that obviously made a lot of people happy, and I'm guessing that those who like Uh-Oh, Here Comes Christmas will really, really like it.
Now. As for the rest of us ... .
You don't have to have a natural aversion to the works of the All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten author to be completely annoyed by this show, but having one certainly won't help matters. Fulghum's platitude-heavy yarns seem to exist in some idealized, homogeneous America more familiar from '50s-era sitcoms than any sort of reality, and every theme and moral is spelled out with thudding obviousness; he may as well be writing for kindergarteners. The man has a sense of humor, thankfully, and some of his observations are witty, but more often his simple, unadorned style just seems simple-minded, and even a little offensive. (There's a story in Uh-Oh, Here Comes Christmas wherein a woman describes her neighbor as "an Asian kid with a 10-dollar grin" who carols "Hark the Hairy Angels Sing," and it feels both patronizing and racist.)
But as someone who doesn't care for Fulghum's output, I was still amazed at how badly Uh-Oh mucks his tales up. The show is purportedly "adapted by Ernest Zulia and David Caldwell," but it doesn't feel as though any adaptation occurred; the skits aren't based on Fulghum so much as they're recitations of Fulghum. (At least one - "What My Daughter Taught Me About Love" - is recounted almost verbatim.) During the production's two hours plus, the five ensemble members - a hardworking crew composed of Greg Cripple, Don Hazen, Lisa Kahn, Jim Pearce, and Pami Triebel - almost never address one another directly. The adapters' conceit, or perhaps director Rick Cassini's, is to have the actors both narrate Fulghum's stories and pop into them as characters within the stories, and to call this off-putting is a wild understatement. The toggling between the performers' "narrator" and "character" voices is so incessant, and so confusingly presented (especially when the three male performers play different generations in 1954 and 1984) that it's easy to lose sight of what the stories are about.
There are random, borderline-amusing sequences; Triebel was a particular audience favorite with her extended narrative about an out-of-control poinsettia, and, in a great gag, a refrigerator appears - reverentially - to the 2001: A Space Odyssey theme.
But the pleasant bits are seriously outweighed by the bummers: the desperately clunky, Vegas-esque Scrooge numbers that open both acts, and seem worlds removed from Fulghum's tone; the wedding sequence between an Irish Catholic and a Jew, which is filled with grotesquely retrograde stereotypes (and hints that Fulghum is the possessor of some grotesquely retrograde attitudes); Cripple's monologue about wanting to be a little boy again, in which the actor is forced to play a wincingly earnest wuss; the scene of a family sharing some eyebrow-raising secrets at the dinner table, which is somehow both cornball and distasteful. (Sonny-boy reveals that he was his sister's first kiss, as she wanted someone to practice on. "It's kind of gross to kiss your sister," he says. It's kind of gross to hear about it, too.)
Will Playcrafters' production have improved by the time you read this? Undoubtedly. As the actors become more comfortable with their lengthy and awkwardly phrased monologues, their readings will likely loosen up; eventually, everyone might look like they're enjoying themselves equally. Or, at the very least, the male performers might stop looking at their feet after nearly every sentence. (At Monday's presentation, the cast appeared composed of an unusual split - three men who almost never smiled, and two women who almost never stopped smiling.)
But even if the show were blessed with faultless readings and staging, Uh-Oh, Here Comes Christmas is so lazily constructed, and, more damagingly, so repetitive - one condescendingly pithy morality fable after another - that it was inevitably going to drive me batty, and I can't be alone in feeling this way. I know a number of deeply religious people, and even the most devout of them would likely blanch at the thought of two full hours of sermons.
For tickets, call (309) 762-0330.