Acerbic and Sweet: ‘Milking Christmas’ at the Living Room

The clever writers and gifted actors who make up Friend Dog Studios are now two for two.

Anyone who saw the “The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe” at the Living Room earlier this year had good reason to approach “Milking Christmas,” a new satiric holiday show, with high expectations.

In “Lefty & Crabbe” the writing/composing team — Seth Macchi, Brian Huther, Ben Auxier and Ryan McCall — gave us a musical comedy celebrating vaudeville and the silent-movie era. It was smart, funny and shot-through with affection for the era and the characters.

Now they’ve returned to the Living Room Theatre with a holiday musical like none you’ve seen before. Just as “Lefty & Crabbe” balanced acerbic comedy with sentimentality, “Milking Christmas” manages the neat trick of assaulting the commercialism of Christmas while appealing to cultural memories of a holiday tradition that once seemed simpler, smaller and less permeated with the stench of Chinese-made junk from big-box stores.

And, like “Lefty & Crabbe,” this show reveals exceptional writing talent (including the dialogue and songwriting). The acting ain’t bad, either.

This show is set in Christmastown, a community at the North Pole ruled by Santa Claus and inhabited by lords-a-leaping, milk maids, toy soldiers, elves, toymakers, coal miners, anthropomorphic candy canes and gingerbread men, a Christmas Mole and a creative director named Krampscnickle, who speaks in a Russian accent with artfully mangled syntax.

Elise Poehling, an exceptional singer with serious comedic gifts, plays Macey, a milk maid who — rather like Winston Smith in George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” — begins questioning the established order of Christmastown while other residents mindlessly go about their assigned tasks.

Macey finds an early ally in Clyde (Huther), a coal miner who never quite recovered from the trauma of falling down a mine shaft. (The miners, of course, produce the coal that goes in the stockings of “naughty” children.)

Macey manages to sneak into the living quarters inhabited by Santa (Bob Linebarger), Mrs. Claus (Ellen Kirk) and their son Chris (Macchi), the heir apparent. The producers have implored reviewers to refrain from spoilers and I’m happy to comply. Let’s just say that Santa and Mrs. Claus aren’t the benevolent figures they seem to be, a realization that leads the residents of Christmastown to revolt and wrest Christmas away from the clutches of corporate greed and return it to the simple ideal it once was.

The wildly imaginative director/choreographer Missy Koonce has staged the show with a mix of broad comedy and subtle asides, some of which whizz by so fast you want to hit the rewind button. Performed without an intermission, the show’s pacing is swift and the timing impeccable.

The design team does good work across the board, but costumer Nancy Robinson makes a vital contribution. She shows a knack for creating outfits that function as visual jokes. Indeed, her costume for Ginger (Mike Ott), an over-baked cookie, is hilarious before the talented Ott opens his mouth. Her efforts are all the more impressive when you consider that most of these clothes had to be built with lighting-fast costume changes in mind.

The songs, some of which are set to melodies from carols and secular holiday tunes, fit comfortably within the conventions of mainstream musical theater. And the actors sell every tune. The ensemble numbers benefit from arresting vocal harmonies, presumably arranged by McCall, who performs the score on an upright piano.

The performances are inspired without exception. Co-writer Auxier is double-cast as Krampscnickle and the Christmas Mole, and each role allows him some of the funniest stage time in the show. Ott again demonstrates his gift for crazed comedy both as Ginger and Jingle, manic but dim-witted elf.

Huther exhibits sharp comic timing as Clyde. Macchi assigns himself the “straight” role of Chris, which offers fewer opportunities for laugh-out-loud one-liners. Linebarger is a memorably malevolent Santa. Kirk matches him as the scheming Mrs. Claus.

Nellie Maple, an actress I had not seen before, in this production establishes herself as one of the best comic performers in town in a variety of roles, including Candy Cane, newscaster Holly Hunter, a toy soldier and a milk maid. She demonstrates precise timing and a remarkably flexible voice.

A youth ensemble — Andrew Stout, Cam Burns and Margaret Veglahn — fits seamlessly into the show’s farcical tone.

So chalk up another original musical that deserves a future. The creators and the group of actors they’ve attracted for this and their previous show are formidably talented. I’m eager to see what they’ll do next.

“Milking Christmas” runs through Dec. 23 at the Living Room Theatre, 1818 McGee. Call 816-533-5857 or go to http://www.thelivingroomkc.com.

About The Author: Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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