SALT LAKE CITY — The Off Broadway Theatre is at it again, stirring up holiday hijinks as only they know how in their latest show, Off White Christmas, a parody of the holiday classic White Christmas. Eric Jensen creates his own spin on the beloved film, adding in some quirky characters and plot points to give it the OBT flavor.
Starting off the show are two soldiers, Private Crosby and Sgt. Dunn, show-biz veterans who are entertaining their fellow soldiers with jokes and songs. Crosby and Dunn take their show to an inn in Park City, Utah, where they put on their show along with the “Christmas Sisters,” in order to try to trump up business for their former General. The Germans show up, there’s a bit with a dude in a dress, a chase scene, and then the play within the play, which was probably my favorite part of the evening. Not only did the production incorporate the Off Broadway staple of improv comedy, but the actors sang songs and cracked wise that kept me grinning from ear to ear until the end of the play.
Among the throng of soldiers is Private Forrest Grump, played by Jason Unruh, who was easily the most natural performer on stage. Unruh added color to the show with his seamless characterization and effortless comedy, and was a highlight of the production. Unruh also excelled at the improvised bits he had in the show, and was so in tune with the audience that he was able to play off of their vocal reactions, taking them in stride. Unruh’s excellent Tom Hanks impression was a very creative touch to add the character to the show, blending in another American classic to this parody.
Playing the two lead roles of Crosby and Dunn were Aaron Bellis and Clarence Strohn, respectively. Strohn carried the show with crackling wit and expertise. Strohn is a gifted comedian and a strong leading man, and it was a delight to watch him. In one of my favorite elements of the show, Strohn performed an improvised game with an audience member, and his ability to whip up humor from thin air was enthralling. One of my favorite things to watch in the show was Strohn’s rubber-like face, which bounced from expression to wildly over-exaggerated expression with overwhelming energy.
Jensen’s script added a pair of villains to the show, Baron Friedrich and Sgt. Rolphe, Nazis who capture Crosby and Dunn during the war and later pursue them in the states, determined to get revenge. Rolphe, a bumbling German officer, was lovably played by Ryan Parker, whose endearing quality made this character memorable. Rob MacArthur as Friedrich, however, failed to engage me. Jensen’s particular brand of comedy requires a certain sensibility to carry off well, and MacArthur, though a competent actor, did not seem up to the task. Every OBT show opens with an announcer introducing the show, and this job fell to MacArthur. His energy seemed low right from the beginning, and he didn’t seem to be having fun with his role.
Acting as the show’s narrators were the famous Andrews Sisters, played by Sarah Higgins, Shealyn Kwan-Smith, and Mariah Richard. Richard and Kwan-Smith carried the comedy well, and all three had lovely voices that blended extremely well. It was a pleasure to see some excellent singers on the OBT stage.
There were also two actors worth mentioning, Austinn Jensen and Chase Dickerson, who played a variety of characters, each more hilarious than the last. Both are very promising comedians and I thoroughly enjoyed their performances. I especially enjoyed a scene wherein Jensen played a stereotypical Asian studio audience prompter, and another wherein Dickerson played a crotchety landlord. Jensen’s talents lie in his ability to convey wry sarcasm in a relatable way. Dickerson shows the beginnings of a great character actor.
Though the OBT stage is small, the cast managed to set each scene in a visually pleasing manner, and all the set changes were done smoothly and efficiently. I enjoyed the period costumes and thought all of the actors looked very nice, particularly the men in uniform and the women in sparkling show gowns. Eric Jensen (who also acted as costume and set designer), is a master at making a lot out of a little, and it was particularly evident in this production.
White Christmas is a favorite of mine, and I would have liked to have seen a plot that remained truer to the film, but I was pleasantly surprised to find Jensen’s original take engaging and fun. Jensen has done his job in writing and directing an enjoyable holiday show, and it is a great one to take the whole family to see.