OREM — Not only is Holiday Night Live one of the best Christmas shows in the state, it’s also quite possibly the best live sketch comedy offering in Utah all year long.
Now in its ninth year, this seasonal tradition is the brainchild of musical genius and director extraordinaire Dave Tinney and his Black Box Rep Company at Utah Valley University. Each year the company spends months workshopping and developing new material, and this year’s crop is exceptionally rich. However, this show is not for the faint-of-heart or the easily offended. Each of the twenty-nine sketches in the evening show pokes a good deal of fun at a wide variety of topics. The satire is biting, fresh, relevant and hits (sometimes uncomfortably) close to home on several occasions. The marketing materials include a “PG-13” warning, and it’s well earned. But Holiday Night Live also an incredibly smart show. While many of the jabs are aimed squarely at sensitive subjects, nothing feels like a cheap shot. The (mostly) clever writing and well-timed deliveries let us know we’re in good hands.
True to its variety show roots, Holiday Night Live serves up a solid mixture of song, dance, and satire on an array of subjects. “Santa-tized” is a clever commentary on holiday life in a hypoallergenic, ebola-fearing society. “Gold, Frankincense, and What?” tackles our local obsession with snake oils. “Evergreen Mile” examines the reality of cruelty to vegetables, while “Father Xmas” explores issues of abandonment in an age of digital parenthood. With only a few exceptions, all material was written and developed by the performers.
The Black Box Rep Company of 15 actors works well together as a cohesive ensemble, and if it’s true that a chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link, then Holiday Night Live is a pretty strong chain. Charming comedienne Aubrey Bench leads the pack as the emcee of the evening, and her rapport with the audience helps to create an atmosphere of delightful engagement with the crowd. Other stand-out performances include Amber Dodge’s turn as the precocious toddler-aged studio exec in “Blockbuster,” Toria Truax in “Ukranian,” and Kailey Green’s flatulent frolic in “Tryptophhhh.”
Also of note is the excellent live band composed of Tinney at the keyboard, Jason Fullmer on guitar, and Karl Dodge on the drums. This ensemble provided backing with style for everything from jazz-influenced fillers to full-on Ukrainian folk dance. In an age where pre-recorded accompaniments are ubiquitous, it’s nice to be reminded how much live instrumentation adds to the quality of a performance.
The live sketches were also punctuated by a number of filmed pieces throughout the show. As a lover of bad puns, I had a great appreciation for the “News Flash” punchlines. “It Gets Merrier” is a clever take on coming out of the toybox, and the “Adopt an Associate” ad featured a more likable version of Sarah McLachlan—played here by Erika Ovuoba. Another strong point of the show was Angela Jeffreys’s scenic design—which appeared to be competing with Clark Griswold’s lighting display for the award of “Most Excessive Wattage in Holiday Decor”. Jeffreys’s bow-festooned and gift-wrap explosion of adornment was a fitting frame for the night’s mockery of consumerist excess.
However, Holiday Night Live was not without it’s weak points. Aside from a few technical delays on opening night that will no doubt quickly be resolved, there was only one sketch I didn’t care for: “A Likely Review.” My dislike stems not from the fact that it lampoons theatre reviewers, but because the featured character was a poor derivative of Saturday Night Live’s excellent 19th century cantankerous critic Jebediah Atkinson. “A Likely Review” was a fine idea perhaps in theory, but while watching I couldn’t help but imagine how much better it would have been if acted by Taran Killam. It was “blagh” at best. But, to be fair, one missed mark out of twenty-nine sketches is still a pretty impressive accomplishment. While preferences will vary from viewer to viewer, I’m confident that most will be well pleased with what the line-up affords.
For those looking for holiday entertainment options extending beyond the typical fare, I heartily recommend making Holiday Night Live an annual tradition. Just be sure to get a sitter for the young ones—and buy your tickets quickly. The year’s show sold out every performance, and UVU even had to add one additional showing on closing night.