I’ve seen a lot of Christmas shows over the years, but I’ve seldom seen one more charming and endearing than A Holiday Party Of One, currently playing at Stageworks. How do I love this inspired musical? Let me count the ways:
First, there’s the palpable good feeling shared by its four performers — Alison Burns (also the author), Ricky Cona, Derek Womack, and Heather Krueger — from the moment the show starts to its ingratiating end. These actors really look like they delight in each other’s company, find performing the show an uncommon pleasure, and have never had as much fun as they’re having right now. Sure, I know that director Karla Hartley must have asked her talented company to play up their mutual admiration. But it works: it feels real. As for Burns’ act one script — in which three difficult characters, Julie, Brian, and Nichole, overcome their antagonisms with the help of Cona’s magical high jinks — it unfolds with such infectious good humor, it seems like a joke we’re all happily clued in on. Then there are the clever parodies of holiday favorites, like “Go post it on my Facebook/Twitter it here and everywhere,” and “Oh come, all you mothers/scared of your own children.” Anyway, any Christmas story that reaches its apogee in a Chinese restaurant over cups of (Japanese?) sake has got wonders up its sleeve.
And what a wonder is Ricky Cona, as both the shape-changing joymaker in act one (he’s even in drag as an Asian server for a while) or as the fractionally Jewish dreidel-spinner in act two. I’ve seen Cona in several Stageworks shows — most notably in Biloxi Blues — and he’s starting to seem like a star and a local hero. Maybe it’s his whiny, nasal, high-pitched voice, which alone would make him stand out in a crowd; or maybe it’s his unbridled enthusiasm in every role that he plays, no matter how absurd. He’s a fine singer, as are all four actors (though I wish Derek Womack would project a lot more), and he seems not merely comfortable on stage but overjoyed at the opportunity to present this or any entertainment. That’s the thing about Cona: he comes across as a kid who’s been waiting all his life just for a chance to make us happy, and he can’t believe his good fortune in having an audience, finally, to gratify. As the key figure in act one and the silliest caroler in act two, Cona is wacky, earnest, vulnerable, enthusiastic, starstruck, and desperate to please, to please, to please. A few more Conas on this planet, and world peace would be a cinch.
Which brings me to the multi-ethnic factor. First there’s the casting of an African-American actor — Womack — in the sort of pageant that’s usually white as Vermont snow. And next there’s Cona’s character in act two, who tells us that he’s learned that one of his distant ancestors was Jewish, and that he’s therefore determined to celebrate Hanukkah along with Christmas. In fact, the Jewish elements of act two are still much in the minority — but that’s not the point.
The point is that for the first time in my 14 years as CL’s theater critic, some holiday entertainers have acknowledged that there are actually Jews in the Tampa Bay area, and they might even want to be represented in a winter show. As a Jewish theatergoer myself, I must admit that I’d long ago given up on finding this sort of recognition, and that it felt great to hear Cona translate Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire” into “Eight Days of Fire” just moments before Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer put in an appearance. There they were, Judaism and Christianity side by side, and no-one was trying to convert anyone else or proselytize: The whole point was, simply, that we live in a pluralist society. A few more references to Kwanzaa would have made the show even more pleasing. Kudos to Stageworks for living up to its mission statement.
Anyway: Hartley’s excellent direction emphasizes apparent ad-libs and the feeling of improv, and her abstract set, if not very impressive, still has a pleasant candy cane ambience. The cast is well-costumed by Malinda Kajando (“and cast”); and special praise goes to Stanley Miller for his wonderful musical arrangements (love those harmonies). The Stageworks space is intimate enough to make an experience like this feel personal: the actors are conscious of us and we of them. Somehow this reads as, we’re all in this together. And of course we are, though we tend to forget it on occasion.
Anyway, deck the halls: once again the live theater brings us something an iPad can’t.
That’s human solidarity. And joy — to the world.
Gender essentialism. Thumbs down.
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