It’s the weekend after Thanksgiving, and you know what that means. That’s right: it is full-contact Christmas season. We’re inundated with the “Black Friday” emails, the Christmas music is everywhere, the Christmas specials are on every TV channel, and, of course, A Christmas Carol and Elf: The Musical are on the stages. Now, I’m Jewish, which means that it is time for 30 days of suffering through all of these. So why would I voluntarily subject myself to a Christmas-themed play — especially one that wasn’t part of a subscription? The answer is that the synopsis sounded fascinating. What would you think if you got a show that was described as follows:
When Hanukkah falls on Christmas Eve, all Larry Epstein wants to do is eat Chinese food, watch movies and hide from the holidays. But when Christmas is threatened and lives are in peril, Larry is forced by the people in his life to be the Jew that saves Christmas!
Making this even more interesting was the fact that it was being done by Zombie Joes Underground (FB), a theatre better known for doing shows that had a dark, perhaps slightly macabre, element. Joe’s shows run only an hour, so I was curious about how this amalgam would turn out.
The answer, at least based on what we just saw, is pretty good, and not the ZJU fare we’ve come to expect. It was funny. It was cute. It was well performed. It wasn’t religious, nor did it hit you over the head with an ecumenical plot. It didn’t overstay its plot. It didn’t In short, it was enjoyable for a Christmas show.
The story, as described in the advertising blurb above, centered around Larry Epstein. Larry was the typical Jew who got turned off of the holiday by (a) sharing a birthday with Jesus, and (b) having a relationship go south on Christmas. This relationship was with a non-Jew, which also made the relationship with his parents go further south at the same time (because he never told them about it). Also involved with Larry was Lilith, his atheist lesbian roommate. All the two of them want to do is get their Chinese Food and hide from the world.
Of course, this being a comedy developed in the land of sitcoms, that was not to happen. They are constantly interrupted by the stream of neighbors: Rabbi Reuben, who keeps wondering why Larry hasn’t been to shul; Mary, the Christian neighbor who just loves the holidays and has the hots for Larry; Alex, an evangelical that is trying to share the religious meaning of Christmas. Each provides an opportunity for humorous exposition and exploration of Larry’s back character, allowing us to understand why Larry is the way he is (and, after meeting Mr. and Mrs. Epstein in a flashback, seeing why his relationship with Sally went south). Eventually, we get to the meat of the story, which is related by the last visitors: Rodney, “Naughty ‘n’ Nice”, and Sandy: there is an even more ancient character (Krampus) who wants to destroy Christmas, and Larry is the prophesied Jew who will save the holiday. The resolution from that point on is cute, non-religious, and reasonably funny. I’d say that the overall message is that love conquers all, but that really isn’t what does the conquering.
The show isn’t perfect — it does build on quite a few stereotypes, such as Jews eating Chinese on Christmas Eve, the Jewish mother, and particularly, the Orthodox-style Jewish rabbi as seen on sitcoms. I was initially bothered by these, but the fun of the story led me to overlook them. Sitcoms, such as this story, depend on slight over-exaggeration and quick conveyance of archetypes through stereotypes. As it was all done in humor, this gets a pass.
There was also some singing (and I enjoyed the pre-show music — there are some rock versions of Christmas songs I’ve never heard). As part of the show, there was the Rabbi singing a number of verses from Light One Candle (by Peter, Paul, and Mary). It is interesting to see a modern PP&M song become part of the holiday canon (of course, equal time should be given to Christmas Dinner — which should be made into a show).
Andy Shultz/FB, the writer and director, kept the presentation light and playful. He seemed to ensure the cast was having fun with the presentation. He used the device of having the roommate, Lilith, serve as narrator in a seeming mix of recorded and live (the “recorded” may have been live, but just over the speakers). Zombie Joes is a theatre that seemingly operates on a shoestring and excels in creativity on that budget, and Shultz seemed to bring out the creativity in the actors and their performances.
In the lead positions of this story were Adam Neubauer (FB) as Larry and Kyle Marie Colucci (FB) as Lilith. Neubauer came across as very down to earth; the sort of non-determinate lapsed-Jew college-student type that we all have as a friend. He seemed to capture the character well. Colucci was his roommate (with a very cute sweatshirt: “Dyke the Halls”) who played off of Neubauer quite well.
In the “continuing character” positions (i.e., those that appeared in more than one scene) were: David Wyn Harris (FB) as Mike, Larry’s best friend who also had the hots for Larry’s mom; Caroline Muniak (FB) as Mary, the next door neighbor; and Deirdre Anderson (FB) as Mrs. Epstein. Harris had a good interplay with Neubauer; this isn’t a surprise as it appears they’ve worked together quite a few times at ZJU. He captured the annoying friend vibe quite well. I really enjoyed Muniak’s Mary — not only was the performance fun to watch and a little over the top, but Muniak herself was quite fun to watch in it 😉 ). Anderson captured the Jewish mother vibe well, including the guilt aspects. She also captured, in her second scene, the oversexed single Jewish mother well (making Mike’s attraction understandable).
Rounding out the cast were Derrick Brooks/FB as Rodney, the elf who informed Larry of his mission; Jennifer Nwene (FB) as “Naughty ‘n’ Nice”, the oversexed elf’s assistant who got Larry’s attention; Brady Glasser as the other elf assistant, Sandy, as well as Alex the evangelical; Bonnyjean Hoffert (FB) as Kelly, the entity out to destroy Christmas, and as Sally, Larry’s ex-girlfriend; and Tom Jones/FB as Rabbi Reuben and Mr. Epstein. Brooks was good as the stereotypical humorous elf; he had the right attitude for the role and a playfulness that came across well. Nwene’s role was much smaller; more of an eye-candy position, but she did what she could with it. Glasser was interesting — a sort of nebbish evangelical (an odd combination), and an elf who seemed to be more in the background as Sandy. Hoffert was fun to watch in both her roles: As Sally, she had a playfulness that came across well (especially when she was attacking Larry in a good way); as Kelly, she was having fun with her evil-ness (again, especially when she was attacking Larry). Lastly, I’ve already commented about Jones’ performance as the Rabbi (which wasn’t his fault — it was written that way). I’ll note instead that he captured the Jewish father well.
I’d say that Zombie Joes doesn’t skim on production values, except that they do. This isn’t a bad thing: it forces creativity in many ways. Their sets are simple; their lights are clip-on reflector bulbs on normal extension cords. But the overall creativity comes across, and they worked for this show. There were a few times where it seemed that cast was waiting on the lighting to catch up, but it wasn’t a significant problem. Production credits: Lights and sound: Kristen Maxie/FB; ZJU General Manager: Adam Neubauer (FB); Stage Manager: Vincent Miller/FB; Assistant Directors: Kristen Maxie/FB and Vincent Miller/FB; ZJU webmaster and online PR manager: Randy Long (FB). The Jew That Saved Christmas was produced by Zombie Joe.
Now for the obligatory Zombie Joe comment, which I seem to make every time I visit Zombie Joe’s: their website. Sigh. Their website design, which looks like an old Homestead website because it is an old Homestead website, is truly stuck in the early 1990s era of web design, with a flashy and garish background, poor organization, and what looks to be a non-responsive design. Just as I need to update my highways site, they need to update theirs. Their productions are so good, that their website shouldn’t look so amateurish. So, Mr. Randy Long. You’re their webmaster. Please make their site better — ZJU deserves it.
The Jew That Saved Christmas continues on Sunday afternoons at 3 PM through December 20, 2015. It’s a cute show, and quite funny. It runs 1 hour, without an intermission. Tickets are available online, or you can call ZJU at 818/202-4120.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres: REP East (FB), The Colony Theatre (FB), and Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Upcoming Shows: December starts with High School Musical at Nobel Middle School (FB) (running December 1-4) — this is a middle school that does surprisingly good productions (although we may be biased a little — our daughter was there for the first two years of their program). It is followed by “El Grande Circus de Coca-Cola” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on December 5. During the week I become a producer, when we present The Nigerian Spam Scam Scam as the dinner entertainment at the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC). The weekend after the conference sees us at the NoHo Arts Center (FB) for Theatre 68 (FB)’s production of Who Killed Santa?, which sounded so warped as to be either extremely funny or extremely stupid– should be fun to watch! The third weekend of December brings the touring company of “If/Then” at the Pantages (FB). The last weekend of December is held for “The Bridges of Madison County” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). I’m just starting to plan 2016 — I’ve been waiting on the REP schedule. So far, January shows “Bullets Over Broadway” at the Pantages (FB) on January 9; “Stomp” at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) on January 24; and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on January 30. There is also a “hold” (i.e., dates blocked, but awaiting ticketing) for “Louis and Keeley – Live at the Sahara” at The Geffen Playhouse (FB) for either January 2 or 16 (pending tickets on Goldstar). There is currently nothing on the schedule for February, except for February 28, when we are seeing The Band of the Royal Marines and the Pipes, Drums, and Highland Dancers of the Scots Guards at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). March brings “Another Roll of the Dice” at The Colony Theatre (FB), and has two potential dates on hold for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) (pending Hottix). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves.