LOWELL – They tell me vaudeville died some time ago, but you wouldn’t know it from watching the Reduced Shakespeare Company.
The knockabout, anything-for-a-laugh spirit of that ancient genre is alive and tolerably well in “The Ultimate Christmas Show (abridged),’’ now receiving its East Coast premiere at Merrimack Repertory Theatre.
Written and directed by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, who perform it along with Matt Rippy, “Christmas Show’’ is neither as consistently funny nor as fully developed as “The Complete World of Sports (abridged),’’ which Martin, Tichenor, and Rippy performed at Merrimack Rep last year.
Part of the problem is the subject matter. Who hasn’t taken a satirical run at Christmas traditions by now? It’s awfully hard to find a fresh angle – and a sketch about outsourcing in which a call to the North Pole is answered by “Sanjay Claus’’ ain’t it. Neither are the references to Sarah Palin and Lady Gaga, or the impersonation of a newscaster named “Wolf Blitzen,’’ all of which bring “Christmas Show’’ alarmingly close to Capitol Steps territory.
However, these are three agile and quick-witted guys who operate on the barrage theory: So you don’t like that joke, sketch, or song? Well, here’s another. And another. And another. I wish the laugh-to-groan ratio were more auspicious than it is in “Christmas Show,’’ but there’s no denying their ingenuity when it comes to creating – and sometimes grabbing – comedy out of thin air. On opening night, when Tichenor asked the audience which of them had participated in the RSC’s gift exchange and what they had received, a woman called out: “I got something kind of cheap and crappy.’’ Martin’s eyes widened in mock dismay. “You’re not talking about the show, are you?’’ he asked.
The premise is that Martin, Tichenor, and Rippy are hosting the annual “Multicultural Interfaith Holiday Variety Show and Christmas Pageant’’ at St. Everybody’s Non-Denominational Universalist Church – so named, Tichenor explains, because “we’ll believe anything.’’ But a winter storm intervenes, making travel impossible for the scheduled performers. So the trio has to whip together a show themselves on the fly, using props from the acts that were supposed to perform – and, at first, their material as well. But when they sing from the sheet music of the Confederate Christmas Carolers’ version of “White Christmas,’’ they discover that the carolers took the title all too literally. So off they go on their own.
Recurring bits revolve around the cast’s ostensible personae. Rippy, the youngest, epitomizes the clueless consumer, ready and eager to submit to the commercialization of the holiday. He’s hoping his present will be a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, but he’s willing to settle for what he finds on the Christmas tree: “A $100 gift card! Borders? Sweeeeet!’’ (He apparently doesn’t keep up with the news.)
Tichenor plays the sacrilegious cynic; he has to repeatedly fend off jabs at his alleged paganism. “I am not a pagan,’’ he retorts. “I am a Utilitarian. I believe in God when it’s useful.’’
Martin’s role is that of the sensitive soul, incessantly trying to remind the others that the holiday commemorates the birth of Jesus. Meanwhile, he battles a severe case of “Santa Claustrophobia.’’
Speaking of whom: In a doo-wop number, the trio pay tribute to Mrs. Claus as the “iron hand behind the man,’’ claiming that it’s really she who makes the holiday happen while Santa is “drying out in rehab.’’
They also lead the audience in a singalong of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.’’ Spectators are encouraged to contribute lines as the trio builds the song, gift by suggested gift. Tichenor bounded into the audience on opening night, climbed to a top row, and stood on a chair, looking for volunteers. (“Oh my God, I’m up here in critic’s corner,’’ he muttered as he made his way past another reviewer and me. “That’s not good.’’) When a male spectator froze after Tichenor called on him, the cast settled on “seven awkward giggles’’ as the man’s contribution.
Late in the show, the cast enlists members of the audience for a re-creation of the Nativity scene in which, playing the Three Wise Men, they channel three not-so-wise men: namely, the Bee Gees, in vintage disco attire. Enjoyable sketches like this are mixed in with bits that were already tired when . . . well, when vaudeville was young. (Martin: “It’s the thought that counts.’’ Tichenor: “Well, keep thinking.’’).
“Christmas Show’’ by no means adds up to a lump of coal in your stocking. But it’s not the nugget of gold these guys are capable of, either.