I will be eternally grateful to the Phoenix Theatre (and its Christmas-music-obsessed head Bryan Fonseca) for introducing me to the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York.” A knock-out element in last year’s “A Very Phoenix Xmas,” it quickly became my favorite holiday song—despite the unlikelihood of ever hearing carolers carrying the view-from-the-gutter tune.
This year, my gratitude to Fonseca and company multiplies thanks to “White Wine in the Sun,” a second-act song in this year’s show. Written by Tim Minchin, composer of Broadway’s “Matilda,” the smart, searching “White Wine in the Sun” could well become my second-favorite Christmas song. It’s already in my top 10.
Such unexpected highlights make “A Very Phoenix Xmas” essential viewing for me every December. As with Christmas itself, the show’s greatest gifts tend to be the surprises, rather than the ones you expect.
In case you’ve missed installments one-through-seven, each year the Phoenix Theatre pieces together a holiday show from submitted short scripts, distilling 100 or so wannabes down to a half dozen selections, fusing them together with songs, dance numbers, video segments and narrative additions. As the subtitle of this year’s show—“Angels We Have Heard While High” (running through Dec. 22)—suggests, the emphasis is on material you won’t hear at the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s “Yuletide Celebration” or at “A Beef & Boards Christmas,” where reverence rules.
This year, the attitude is underlined in an opening salvo by Phoenix playwright-in-residence (and the show’s chief compiler) Tom Horan, establishing as hosts the earnest Scot Greenwell and his drink-and-other-stuff imbiber Ryan O’Shea. It leads into “Mary’s Christmas Story” by A. Scott Freeman, in which the world’s most famous miraculous pregnancy is announced in the context of a contemporary family meal.
No, not every sketch works—and some, including “Mary,” fizzle out before they end—but there are pleasures sprinkled throughout, including a lovely, festive set, upgraded video elements, the minimization of obvious jokes that often marred previous installments, and a serious effort to give its characters inner life instead of just serving as joke fodder. “Christmas Isn’t Math,” a boy-and-his-dog story by Sarah Saltwick, contains some of the show’s strongest work.
And then there’s the music. In addition to “White Wine in the Sun,” there’s jaunty, New Orleans’ flavored dancing; more playful work from Indy Fringe’s favorite musical trio, The Fourth Wall; and a fairly accurate re-creation of the signature dance moves from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
Plus a mad scientist doing experiments on a cat.
Because what would the holiday season be without a mad scientist doing experiments on a cat?
If “A Very Phoenix Xmas” is too tame for you, consider visiting ComedySportz’s “A Christmas Carol Unscripted” (Fridays through Dec. 23). You can even make it a double feature if you sneak out during the Phoenix curtain call—as I did—and hustle down the block to Mass Ave. Read the full review at www.ibj.com/arts.•
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