MURRAY — Desert Star Playhouse, known for its over the top fun parodies, tried to live up to its reputation with their Christmas show, Christmas Vacation: The Bi-Polar Express. While the Christmas spirit and some great acting were on display in this seasonal production, The Bi-Polar Express hit some bumps along the way and may have missed the mark in upholding the playhouse’s great reputation.
The audience was first greeted by an enthusiastic MC/pianist. Instead of traditional Christmas music he whisked the audience into the world of the play with a saloon style melody. I knew right away that I was about to witness a good old-fashioned melodrama. The scoring continued throughout the show, even cueing the audience to boo for the villain or to cheer for the hero. The audience, mostly season ticket holders, went wild when cued and it certainly helped a newcomer like me feel involved in the show. The play tells the story of a young Napoleon Bonaparte-esque elf named Keebler seeking to steal Santa’s magic snow globe so that he can conquer and replace Santa Claus. Keebler runs into trouble when faced against a young girl visiting the North Pole, her father, a few good elves, and Old St. Nick himself.
Desert Star has a reputation for producing parodies. However, Christmas Vacation: Bi-polar Express, while a parody in title, didn’t seem to live up to expectations. It bordered on extended sketch comedy rather than a parody. While Keebler was well established as our villain, the role of hero is not as clear. There are several positive, moral characters, but none claimed the title of protagonist. While Santa seems the opposite of Keebler, the character of Ronald Trump seems to aid the story’s resolution. The melodramatic form that the show follows suffers when no real driving force is presented in the form of a clear hero.
However, these formulaic issues would have been easily overlooked if there had been any provocation towards genuine laughter. Jokes were shoehorned into the show. Sadly, they definitely didn’t quite hit home. A majority of the jokes were outdated, ill-fitting ’90s pop culture references with the occasional mention of The Jersey Shore, with Santa quoting Britney Spears’s “Oops I Did It Again” thrown in for kicks. I was shocked, along with audience members seated next to me, at some of the borderline offensive jokes that were made. In particular I found several jokes to be racially demeaning, particularly calling attention to a negative Latino employment stereotype, an idea that Black and Caucasian Americans are only suited with specific athletic abilities, and a two dimensional depiction of Jewish culture. There were several jokes and one entire character that were written so as to exploit negative racial stereotypes and offensively portrayed multiple minority groups. This is, of course, on top of a candid insensitivity towards mental illness (see the title of the play) which became a running “gag” throughout.
The acting, on the other hand, had some moments of brilliance. The actors grabbed hold of the melodramatic, and sometimes slapstick, nature of the show and gave the audience fun over the top characters. Keebler (Corey Brandenburger, Anthony Buck, J. Tyrus Williams) and his elf girlfriend Elphaba (Corinne Adair, Ashley Grant, Courtney Jensen) created a fun dynamic of evil and nice. The Bear named Theodore (Ed Farnsworth, Scott Holman, Todd Thompson) embraced his role and brought a great energy to the stage. The acting did fall short with somewhat awkward moments when the actors broke character. Instead of improvising or just going on with the scene, each actor seemed to take a different approach that melded into uncomfortable feelings for actor and audience alike. There was also a general lack of real connection on stage. The cast held tight to their outlandish characters but forgot to connect to each other or with the audience. I longed to be invited into the world by being talked with instead of talked to. Much of this seemed to come from the direction that forced the actors into focusing on punch lines and not on what was happening around them. The directing, done by (Scott Holman), had its high points as well. The movement itself seemed seamless and did have a very natural flow.
While the basic storyline had potential and the actors fought their way to produce good work, Christmas Vacation missed the mark in terms of clear plot structure, oddly stylized direction, and distasteful, ineffective humor. I wouldn’t avoid the Desert Star in the future, but I would rethink spending my cold winter evening at The Bi-Polar Express.