Many of us remember the simultaneously cheesy and heartwarming television Christmas specials of yesteryear. From Judy Garland to Bing Crosby, all the old stars used to host their own annual seasonal variety show. These programs, which became a popular staple of December television viewing, broke up the monotony of TV's otherwise rigidly constructed schedules.
Chad Morton's TV Christmas Miracle, an original play by Jack Crowe and Jim Keating at Village Players Theatre, is a delightful salute to the holiday shows of not-so-long-ago when the networks provided something for everyone in one jam-packed televised Christmas package. These broadcasts featured guest stars on their way up and others on their way down. There'd be plenty of soap flake "snowflakes" falling and obligatory scenes in front of the "open fire" and at the punchbowl.
If the enthusiastic reaction of the packed house at Sunday's Village Players matinee premiere is any indication, this new production directed by Doug Long captures the right combination of nostalgia and Christmas cheer. The audience seemed to enjoy both the spoof of the late '60s media scene as well as the many fine performances.
Chad Morton, portrayed by Crowe, is an all-around veteran entertainer whose easy-listening voice and homey persona bring to mind bland performers like Perry Como. Morton had been welcomed into the nation's living rooms during the 1950s but by the late '60s he faces stiff competition from young stars more hip to the changing tastes of the psychedelic Age of Aquarius.
I enjoyed the production and hope it becomes a frequently revived Village Players holiday staple, just as Ebenezer, their homespun musical spin on A Christmas Carol, was once. This new show, original and fresh, definitely has further potential.
The satire could be punched up even more, though, without sacrificing any of its holiday charm. The conflict of whether Morton will survive should be intensified. The dialogue needs more barbs and zingers. The late-'60s spoofs could be even wilder and deeper. Some of the period flavor is lost on the younger half the audience?#34;a joke about the first Mayor Daley at odds with Abbie Hoffman, for instance, didn't get the laugh it deserved. The Trojan War is perhaps now more familiar to young folks than the 1968 Democratic Convention.
Many of the second-string, bit characters are more in focus and have more distinct personalities than Morton, who seems blurry. Sure, he's a television institution. But who is he really and why should we care about him? He needs to clearly either be a hopelessly frustrated has-been, say, or a sad-sack schmuck, or a self-absorbed jerk. We can't warm up to him. We get no sense of why this guy was ever popular, except he's a swell singer. No other character ever really rags on him behind his back and confrontations with him are rare, despite the fact that so much is riding on the success of his TV special.
Mitzi Graniere (Kamaran-Alexis Madison) is a wonderful composite of all those grand, slightly over-the-hill lady singers, from Dinah Shore to Lena Horne, who were such a staple on holiday specials. This one has a drinking problem.
As in any good Christmas miracle story, from Charles Dickens to Frank Capra, there is an intervening angel or a kindly ghost. Here she's Hildegarde, a classy old dead diva played by 80-something Betty Scott Smith. She's elegant and meddlesome. And she lights up every scene she's in.
Because the network is trying to attract a younger audience, Morton's Christmas special features two rising young guest stars. One is a mopey, pushy singer (James R. Lang) in a long furry vest and paisley shirt like Sonny Bono used to wear. He's referred to as a "pot-smoking, draft-dodging hippie." He performs duets with a Grand Old Opry nightingale (Laurie McEathron) whose hair is bigger than her voice.
Marie (Sadie Wynne) is Morton's "go-for" production assistant who we quickly learn is a talented singer. In a nod to one of the oldest showbiz cliches, Marie finally gets a chance to prove herself before the camera when a temperamental star is unable to go on.
Bill Brennan is hilarious as Mr. Bernard, a prancing hairdresser and make-up artist with a predilection for puffy, lacy shirts and rose-colored granny glasses.
Dan Bell (Jim Keating) is a riot as a corny comic and inept ventriloquist who performs with a reindeer sock puppet. Carl Occhipinti is an agent with too many worries. Dominic Abney and James Spangler are network bosses who may be an item. Dan Marco is a constantly moving cameraman.
During each of the brief scene change "blackouts," we hear voice-overs from vintage television commercials. These are especially fun for mature audience members who remember stuff like, "Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, Oh what a relief it is!"
There's a remarkable blow-up photograph of "Chad Morton" prominently displayed in the lobby and framed on stage in which the fictional entertainer has somehow been inserted into an actual Las Vegas period photo of the Rat Pack. There's Oak Park's Jack Crowe, posing in front of the marquee at The Sands with buddies Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Peter Lawford and Dean Martin. It's a hoot.
There's not a lot of dancing in this show but the choreography by Mary S. Burns is tight and serviceable. Crowe is impressive in a tap number.
The musical director, Keith Dworkin, wrote several original compositions. He's on stage throughout the performance playing the piano alongside Ray L. DeMarco, percussionist.
Not all the music is freshly minted. Many of the numbers are seasonal standards. Madison leads a thrilling gospel rendition of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." The cast seems stronger, more comfortable with the old stuff than the new numbers.
Tickets to Chad Morton's TV Christmas Miracle might make good presents for hard-to-buy-for folks who'd enjoy a couple hours of seasonal escapism.