Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Jesus & Johnny Appleweed's Holy Rollin' Family Christmas
Also see Richard's recent review of Q Brothers Christmas Carol
Tony L. Marr Jr. co-directs and choreographs, and despite some acting unevenness (the male performers on stage sometimes lose their showbiz swagger), the popular musical actress Kay Love is matriarch Bess Goodson, along with Marlee Wenski as her on-stage daughter Tammy. Bess is a Donna Reed/Barbara Billingsley type mom in the 1950s TV show family presented on stage in act one. Ms. Love handles the play's satirical tone, and each of her solos, with great finesse. In act two she reveals an unexpected flair for stoner comedy as the wise, pot smoking alien Johnny Appleweed.
Act one gives us a fresh absurdist approach to the family-friendly TV sitcoms of the 1950s. Absurdist, partly because it's the very last Christmas of the "Happy Days" decade, and the 1960s are already banging on the door of the show's ranch-style house interior, lovingly designed by Rob Lippert. Act two, borrowing from A Christmas Carol, seems a lot stronger, both musically and theatrically. The finale peals with holiday glory.
Ms. Wenski, as Tammy (in a multi-racial family, in extreme denial of its complexions), unleashes bluesy power in "Miles and Miles," a song about her interracial love affair. And later she opens one of the show's many doors of originality with a dream sequence, singing a Hollywood scandal song, "Don't Look At Me! I'm Sandra Dee!." Tawaine Noah, in one of his two roles onstage, does very well with a psychoanalytical song, "You Act Like Dad."
Perhaps because it's a world premiere, the men on stage sometimes appear to be mildly unsure of the comedy, and tentative with Mr. Miller's complex be-bop rhythms. But when everyone speaks with conviction, and when the power of the singing matches the subtle '50s jazziness of the music, the show floats giddily along.
>"That Stick Up Your Ass" is great fun, late in act two, as the conservative dad (the charming Terrell Thompson) gets swept up in a sotto voce soft-shoe type number with the rest of the cast. And Tony L. Marr Jr. (the assistant director and choreographer) stepped in at the last minute as teenage son Chip and is delightful, facing up to the challenge. An additional four-person chorus is excellent handling the jazzy score, and they appear to be on the right track in developing eccentric background characters to heighten the mood. Lauren Smith Beardon supplies the first-rate costumes.
Mallory Golden leads a flawless band, although when New Line brings the show back next December (as I hope they will), maybe they could have an entr'acte as everyone settles back in from intermission, to avoid a long, awkward silence. Or maybe that suspenseful stillness heightens the marijuana-like paranoia of the moment.
It's funny that you can take this much-less traveled road to guaranteed Christmas cheer, and get there all the same. The original music is very impressive, blending with sometimes pointed satire for a snarky (and oddly charming) holiday event.
Jesus & Johnny Appleweed's Holy Rollin' Family Christmas runs through December 16, 2023, at New Line Theatre, Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square, St. Louis MO. For tickets and information please visit www.newlinetheatre.org.