‘Christmas in Hell’ at York Theatre Company.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
By Ryan Leeds
We need to talk about Davin (Elijah Rayman). Lately, he’s been displaying signs of demonic possession. In chemistry class, he has drawn the elements for napalm, anthrax, and “the red dye they use in maraschino cherries.” He has also crucified a live frog — and the precocious eight-year-old is making Dick and Jane significantly more suggestive than they need to be. His father, Richard (Scott Ahearn) is summoned to the principal’s office where he learns that his son is…well…”F*cked up!”
This is the promising opening to York Theatre Company’s original new musical, Christmas in Hell, a cheeky new addition to holiday theatrical offerings. While most theater companies adhere to traditional holiday fare with the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol, the York deserves kudos for going out on a limb and pushing the envelope with this humdinger of a show.
Davin’s bad behavior is attributed to the accidental ingestion of fruitcake — but not any ordinary fruitcake. This one was passed down among friends and relatives across generations and has been deemed “the fruitcake from hell.” Suddenly, Davin finds himself face to face with the prince of Darkness, Lucifer (Brandon Williams).
Other antics ensue throughout the two-hour comedy, including a trip to Chuck E. Cheese and Home Depot, a romance between a mysterious ancient named Galiana (Lori Hammel) and Carl (Zak Risinger), a bogeyman who greets his Hades-bound visitors and plays the banjo.
As quirky as it is, there are also touching moments. After a brief interaction with Father McDuffy (played with delightful buffoonery by Ron Wisniski), Richard digs for truth in the number, “I Wish That I Believed.” Even the ridiculous lyrics to “More than Cheese” manage to conjure feelings of inexplicable sweetness:
More than cheddar, more than swiss, you may think gorgonzola is pure bliss. More than Jarlsberg, Mascarpone, more than Camembert or even provolone, I don’t care how much you cherish all of these. You have to love your child more than cheese.
Certainly, this is not Terms of Endearment, but the through-line is the unconditional and unflagging devotion parents have for their children—even if they are categorized with dairy products.
Bookwriter, composer and lyricist Gary Apple also taps into the connection between humanity and the Divine with “You’re God,” a song that proves that man has more capability than he realizes to solve life’s problems.
Apple, a contributor to television’s The Simpsons, has a knack for melody. While none of his music will be canonized into the Great American Songbook, his musical compositions are enjoyable enough.
Unfortunately, his knack for wit could use more sharpening. It’s unclear whether he wanted to go further with his comedy or whether he was confined by the theatre’s desire for more family-friendly material. Although it starts as an edgy and irreverent piece, Christmas in Hell has trouble securing its footing and comedic tone.
At times, I was reminded of the 1988 film Big, in which a 12-year-old is turned into a 30-year-old executive at a toy company and spends the rest of the film wishing for his return to youth. Perhaps that is due to the guileless nature Ahearn embodies, similar to Big’s star, Tom Hanks.
Generally, the ensemble, under Bill Castellino’s direction, is solid and lives up to the usual standards that audiences have come to expect from the York.
Producing Artistic Director and set designer Jim Morgan has created a visually impressive set, complete with pillars that transform from gloom to cheer.
At two hours with intermission, this is one tuneful tree could be trimmed into a neat 90-minute package.
Is Christmas in Hell destined to become a perennial classic? Likely not, But it is a pleasant one that breathes fresh life into the standard Christmas story.
Christmas in Hell
York Theatre Company
619 Lexington Avenue, NYC
Through December 30
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or Facebook.