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Christmas in Hell

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - December 13, 2018

Elijah Rayman, Scott Ahearn
Photo by Carol Rosegg

One walks into Christmas in Hell, at the York, wanting to like it. Picture it: An original musical comedy, not based on anything, with book, music, and lyrics by Gary Apple, a Simpsons writer. We already know how smart The Simpsons can be when it wanders into musical comedy territory — think of Oh, Streetcar!, or the peerless whole-episode parody of Mary Poppins. Or I Hate Musicals: The Musical, a cheeky original by staff writer Mike Reiss that graced the Ivorytown Playhouse a couple of seasons ago. James Morgan's set looks hellish, lots of red columns bathed in Yael Lubetzky's ominous, gobo-laced lighting, Logan Medland's ringing four-piece offstage orchestra starts rumbling, a choral opening number recounts the tale of a cursed Christmas fruitcake, and we're primed for a good time.

And what follows is . . . mild. Not incompetent, not offensive, just dutifully clacking along a well-worn track — like something out of the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop, where Apple, in fact, studied — and missing a few stations along the way. Idiosyncrasy is scarce, and that begins with our hero, Richard (Scott Ahearn). He's a single dad (what happened to Mom is never explained — really, Mr. Apple, not one little line of dialogue?), and he's been called in for a parent-teacher conference about his eight-year-old son, Davin (a winning Elijah Rayman, who comes off as a real kid, not a calculating kid actor).

Davin's behavior has been strange, though the next song uses a much stronger word than “strange.” It's the first of many numbers that, rather than forwarding action or amplifying emotion, just restate one thought in multiple ways. Davin's teacher (Donna English, splendid in several roles), invoking the f-word over and over, is in itself supposed to be hilarious. Anyhow, Davin has ingested the fruitcake from hell and landed in the ICU. Oh, and Richard is telling all this in flashback to Detective Zanderhoff (Dathan B. Williams), who's been called in for some unaccountable reason to help resolve Davin's sudden fondness for pitchforks and frequent invocations of "Reg-nok ka varabock za," which translates as "He who sets foot in my realm is mine."

Davin lies unconscious, misses Christmas — a good number comes with his recovery, "Somebody Owes Me a Christmas" — and gets swept up in a diabolical mixup at the hospital, involving one of the unlikelier personages ever to emerge in a musical comedy plot, Charles Manson. For reasons not compelling enough to explain, Davin winds up in the underworld, where Lucifer (Brandon Williams) wants to replace Richard as his father, and Richard has to venture there to battle with the devil for custody of his son. That means gaining otherworldly passage with the assistance of Galiana (Lori Hammel), a garishly costumed spirit who's inhabited both worlds, and who loves Carl (Zak Risinger), a devil's underling whose hands are too big, and who gets a whole pointless song about that.

Does this sound fun? It could be, maybe. But Richard, in Ahearn's straightforward portrayal, hasn't much of a personality. Nor, surprisingly, does Lucifer — he's just a leather-clad bureaucrat, nowhere near as menacing as, say, Mr. Applegate from Damn Yankees. Their final square-off, with Richard articulating the paternal love that no other force can match, is an eleven-o'clock-number moment if there ever was one, but "More Than Cheese" has as little impact as its title suggests. The other characters — an officious principal, a central-casting Irish priest (both Ron Wisniski, struggling with the Hibernian accent), a dumb cop, God — don't make huge impressions. The ripe comic possibilities inherent in who's in hell, who's not, and why they're there or not are minimally exploited, though you'll be glad to know that an afterlife Leona Helmsley makes a killer mac and cheese.

The songs, often in suitable minor keys to reflect the diabolical surroundings, are neat enough if sloppily rhymed, and you'll probably appreciate the finale, which suggests that Hades and an overlong Christmas season are the same thing. It's a score that skates the surface, though, never plunging deep into anyone's feelings or motivations. And Bill Castellino, who did such a terrific job directing Desperate Measures at the York last season, seems off his game here: There are dialogue pauses you could drive an SUV through, and the choreography's barely there. Tyler M. Holland's costumes have some sparkle, and the busiest design person may be Kenneth Griffin, who never met a wig he, or we, didn't like.

I hope Apple keeps trying with musicals: He knows how to lay one out, and while there's little in the way of satire here, he's good at poking fun at modern annoyances, like Home Depot and Chuck E. Cheese. As we traverse hell, heaven, and some nonspecific suburbia that could use more definition, we enjoy the occasional good joke and applaud the hardworking cast. But Christmas in Hell is seldom able to mask the harsh reality: Hell, it turns out, is a rather bland place.

Christmas in Hell
Through December 30
York Theatre Company at York Theatre at St. Peter's Church, 619 Lexington Avenue (enter on 54th Street)
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix