Puppets have an interesting place in the panoply of potential actors. Some puppets are clearly designed to tell stories to children — sappy fairy tales with morals, clear distinctions between good and evil, and nary a hint of sex. Often, the intent is for the audience to see the puppets as only the puppet; the underlying puppeteer is invisible. The use of the puppets in adult stories was very limited, and limited to the Flahooleys in Flahooley, the puppets of Carnival, and, umm, well that’s about it.
Then came Avenue Q. Avenue Q showed that puppets can be used to tell an adult story. In fact, Avenue Q showed that puppets can be used to tell a story that might not be possible with human actors. Puppets can offend and say things that a human would never get away with. Avenue Q also showed that it doesn’t make a difference if you can see the human puppeteer, as long as said puppeteer dressed in all black. In fact, seeing the puppeteer had some advantages in that the expressive human’s face could augment the much more limited expressiveness of the puppet face. Oh, and ventriloquism? Thrown out the window. If you can see the puppeteer, you know these are puppets and there is no reason to throw your voice. Just go with the suspension of disbelief.
Who Killed Santa?, which we saw last night at the NoHo Arts Center (FB) in a production from Theatre 68 (FB), is clearly a product of the Avenue Q vein of puppetry. The main cast of puppet characters (see in the postcard to the right) all have human manipulators that are clearly visible (and are, of course, wearing black). Most of the puppets are hand and rod puppets (think most Muppets or Princeton from Ave. Q); Frosty is a hand and glove or “live hand” puppet (think Sweetums from the Muppets or Nicky from Ave. Q).
Who Killed Santa? is also, clearly, a Christmas show. We’re Jewish. So why would we go see a Christmas show, especially as we had already seen one Christmas show this season already? The answer is, like the previous show, that the synopsis was so warped as to draw us in:
In this hilarious and irreverent send-up, Santa is hosting his annual holiday party attended by the usual holiday favorites: Frosty, Tiny Tim, The Little Drummer Boy, and Rudolph, who all have a bone to pick with Santa. After the introduction of the sexy new Little Drummer Girl, tempers flare, and Santa ends up with a candy cane through the heart. No one will confess, no one can leave, and Christmas is in jeopardy. As the tension builds, a couple of incompetent detectives enter the scene, and all the dirty secrets of these iconic holiday characters are revealed. Eventually, with the help of the audience, the murderer is convicted and sentenced.
So let’s put this together: We have puppets. We have a Christmas-themed murder mystery. We have adult themes and songs. We have no religious content. We have parodies of well-known Christmas songs. Wouldn’t that draw you in? This was either going to be great, or it was going to be a train wreck.
I’m pleased to say that the train stayed on the track. I am sad to say that I couldn’t get fully into the moment and the humor, but that wasn’t the fault of the show but the fault of the light migraine that chose to manifest itself 15 minutes into the show (after staying away for the entire ACSAC conference). But even with the headache, I found the show very cute and enjoyable, with great song parodies, wonderful performances, and some really good humor.
Playwright Neil Haven (FB) has created a Santa who is very different than the current image of the jolly fat man (which, truthfully, sets people up for unrealistic expectations). Haven’s Santa is one that overworks his elf employees, denies them holiday parties, drinks to excess, and who is interested in keeping his, well, North Pole polished, if you get my drift. This creates adult backstories / interstitials for all of the iconic characters portrayed by the puppets: Frosty, who Santa abuses and refuses to consider a part of Christmas, relegating him to the lesser “Winter” holidays, and who has an unspoken past with Santa; Tiny Tim, who is a virgin — a source of great mirth to Santa; Steve, the drummer boy, who has suffered abuse at the hands of Santa; Rudolph, who also has a drinking problem as well as potential relationship issues; and the newest icon: Chastity, the drummer girl, who was added to bring more female balance to the team, and to whom Santa is hoping to have a relationship that is inappropriate for an old man and a girl. Tim is also interested in such a relationship, which pisses off Santa who sees Tim as competition. All of this, you see, can lead one to murder.
That, of course, is eventually what happens. Santa is stabbed with a candy cane, and through various expositional means, all of the backstories come out. Any of the characters had both motive and opportunity. This leaves it to the elves to decide who is the guilty party.
This brings us to the elves, who are played by… the audience and the tech crew. At the beginning of the show, the two costumed elves — the keyboardist and the light/sound guy — inform the audience that they are elves, and are being oppressed by Santa. At various points in the show, they are led in protest songs (found in the program) and get to hold up picket signs (the last page of the program). They are also excluded from Santa’s holiday party where the action on stage is happening. As a result, the actors on stage periodically wipe the windows clear and made comments about the elven audience … and then turn to the elven audience to decide on the killer and to, in Edwin Drood style, determine which of the potential endings for the show will be used.
In terms of the story, I’d characterize it as a bunch of caricatures thrown together to create a story. In this sense, it is no different than other mashups, such as the movie Rise of the Guardians. The caricatures, however, seem intentionally drawn to turn these sweet characters into adults. The portrayal emphasizes their randiness and adult nature, including adult proclivities and weaknesses. I personally found it reasonably funny, although others might find it a tad overdone. I would guess that one’s reaction would depend on how one viewed the characters in the first place. As I have little connection or emotional resonance with the iconic characters, I’m willing to go with the flow.
The music in the story is primarily a collection of parodies of existing Christmas and holiday music. The nature of the parodies ranges from the extremely well done to the extremely raunchy. Here’s an example from a few pages of the script that I found online:
Frosty the Snow Thing
Is like them plastic dolls.
The kids forgot his ding-a-ling
But he does have three big balls.
Here’s another, to the tune of Carol of the Bells:
Santa is dead.
Blood has been shed.
Evil at work.
Someone’s a jerk.
No one can leave
One of you guys
Wrought his demise
You should have the idea by now. I found the songs to be cute takes on the original. Will you like them? That depends on whether you’re willing to go along with the parody and the notions in play.
Where does this leave us, at least in terms of the story? I think if you are a person who hold Christmas near and dear, one who cannot laugh at iconic Christmas characters or accept their straying off the narrow path of purity, then this is not the musical play for you. If, on the other hand, you’re willing to go along with iconic characters (including Santa) as raunchy versions of themselves, and for there to be sexual dalliances between iconic Christmas characters (including children) and adults — and, in fact, if you can laugh at that notion — then you’ll love this play.
The performances are hard to judge; it is hard to be spectacular when one hand is covered in felt and foam, the other is manipulating a rod, and the audience may be looking at the puppet’s face instead of yours. Still, there were memorable aspects. As Frosty the Snowman, Jonathan Berenson (FB) (the bulk of Frosty), and Peter Osterweil (FB) (Frosty’s right arm) projected an air of affibility. They brought a good energy to the role, although given the nature of Frosty, I hesitate to say they were hot (but I’m sure they did a great cold reading… I’m here all week folks, try the fish sandwich). Seriously, I liked their interpretation of Frosty — a bit addled, but clearly annoyed by Santa’s treatment of him.
Jotapé Lockwood (FB)’s portrayal of Steve, the Little Drummer Boy, was perhaps the biggest surprise in the cast. He did a great job of creating the image of Steve — the little drummer boy who now played with heavy metal bands. Then he opens his mouth for the parody of “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer”, and this marvelous operatic voice comes out. I’d love to hear this guy do an opera or a concert — he is that good. Reminded me of Rod Gilfry in the quality of his voice.
Marissa Fennell (FB)’s Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer took the red nose to heart. She vocalized the character as if the red nose was due not only to drinking, but to a very bad head cold. There was this odd nasal quality to the vocal interpretation that I found odd until it was explained to me. As an audience member, I can’t tell if it was her choice or the directors, but I think it was a little strong. Other than that, the character came across fine — a randy drunken buck, potentially interested in other bucks. But as Fats Waller says….
Katie Zeiner‘s Tiny Tim was portrayed with a strong British, if not Cockney, voice and attitude. She conveyed the randiness of Tim appropriately, and limped as she moved the puppet, a nice choice.
Rebecca Rose Phillips (FB) was the newest iconic character, Chastity, the Little Drummer Girl. As Chastity, Phillips brought an interesting sexual energy to the role. Nowhere is this clearer than in her introductory number, a parody of Lady Marmalade, with a refrain of “Faa-la-la-la Pah-rum pum / Faa-la-la-la-la here / Marshmallow Hot Choc-lat Yum Yum / Norske Goddess Mrs. Claus”
This brings us to the lone actor that portrays all the non-puppet characters: Thomas F. Evans (FB), who is Santa Claus, The Detective, The Tooth Fairy, and Mrs. Claus. Evans’ portrayal of each of these is very different from each other. His Santa Claus is clearly a horny alcoholic letch, although the costuming seemingly interferes with the clearly fake beard (although I understand why they do it). His dectective is suitably bumbling, and I truly do not have strong impressions of his latter two characters (the headache kicked in right around then, and all I can recall is enjoying them, but not the specifics).
The cast was rounded out by Ed Cosico (FB) and Jordan Wall (FB) as the elves.Their main performance role was to stir up the workers (audience) into singing protest songs and to hold protest banners. In their day job, they were the Acocmpanist and the Sound / Light Board operator, respectively.
Who Killed Santa? was directed and produced by Ronnie Marmo (FB), who is also the artistic director of Theatre 68. Marmo recognized this play for what it is: a light fluff of a comedy designed to entertain and then get out of the way. He captured the stereotypes well, if not a bit too much, and cast actors that were able to improves when things went wrong (which often happens in intimate theatre). I did appreciate that he had his actors do the little things, like vocalizing the squeaking you hear when you wipe a misty window dry to look out of it. Marmo was assisted by Heidi Rhodes (FB).
Turning to the production side of things: The set was designed by Danny Cistone (FB), who created a simple Christmasy room that established place and supported the story. What more could you ask for? The puppets were by Libby Letlow (FB), based on the original designs of Dan Katula. Letlow also provided the puppetry coaching. Both were executed well — the actors seems to inhabit and portray the puppet characters handily (see what I did there :-)). The puppets themselves seemed to be well suited for the job, and seemed to characterize their characters appropriately. The lighting by Paul McGee/FB did a suitable job of establishing mood and illuminating the scenes. Props were by Grace DeWolff, and were cute and effective. The costumes, by MJ Scott/FB, were effective (such as they were). The parenthetical was due to the fact that the only character with a real costume was Santa / The Detective / Tooth Fairy / Mrs. Claus. Those worked, and provided sufficient ability to change. My only complaint was that the Santa beard was just a little too fake. Remaining production credits were: Emily Juliani (FB) – Tech Director / Prop Master; Brian Myers/FB – Music Arrangement; Jotapé Lockwood (FB) – Music Direction; Marissa Fennell (FB) – Publicity Stills (which you can see above); Neil Haven (FB) – Sound Design; Jordan Wall (FB) – Light and Sound Operator; Sandra Kuker PR (FB) – Publicity and Marketing; Sandra McHale – Playbill Design; Amanda Schlicher (FB) – Playbill Design. Who Killed Santa? was originally produced and conceived with puppets in Milwaukee WI by Neil Haven (FB), Bo Johnson (FB), and Dan Katula.
Who Killed Santa? continues at the NoHo Arts Center (FB) until January 2nd, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 7pm, except for Christmas Day. Tickets are available at Plays411. It does not appear to be up on Goldstar; however discount tickets are available on LA Stage Tix, while they last. If you’re looking for an adult-oriented silly fluff of a Christmas play, this one should do nicely.
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: The third weekend of December brings the touring company of “If/Then” at the Pantages (FB). The last weekend of December has “The Bridges of Madison County” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), and Nunsense at Crown City Theatre (FB). The new year, 2016, starts with “Louis and Keeley – Live at the Sahara” at The Geffen Playhouse (FB) on January 2nd. This is followed by “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 for January 16 or January 17 for “That Lovin’ Feelin’” at The Group Rep (FB). There is also the open question of whether there will be Repertory East Playhouse (“the REP”) (FB) 2016 season, and when it will start. This leads to uncertainty about the Group Rep show (I’ll note that if there is no REP season, I’ll likely subscribe at Group Rep — call it the Law of Conservation of REP). 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). I expect to be filling out February as December goes on. 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.
Music: “The Gift”, from The Fortress of Solitude (2015 Original Cast), performed by Kristen Sieh, and the Fortress Ensemble