What's Santa up to now?

What’s Santa up to now?

Yesterday was the last day of classes, but more importantly, it was the night of XMAS!, Columbia’s annual winter musical comedy. What better way to celebrate finishing the semester on a good note than to take in your peers’ creative talent and get a good laugh. Our Arts Editor rejoiced in the revelry and wants to share it with you. 

In many ways, Monday’s XMAS!9 was everything you could want from a musical. Jokes flew fast and landed well. Outlandish characters reveled in the jazzy score and their own energy. A cartoonish wonderland framed moments of real poignancy. If only this musical knew how to land a single musical number.

But we’ll get back to that.

XMAS! is an annual show well on its way to becoming its own Columbia tradition. First introduced in 2006, it serves as the fall counterpoint to the Varsity Show, and indeed, cast and production teams for the two musicals often overlap. This year’s XMAS!9 will share no less than three cast members (Cole Hickman, Varun Kumar, and Alina Sodano), a producer (Emily Snedeker), both composers (Sam Balzac and Fernanda Douglas), and the choreographer (Chloé Durkin) with the upcoming V121. That production incest seems to have more to do with the relatively insular Columbia theater community than similar artistic sensibilities. Free from the restraints of tradition and a Columbia focus, XMAS, more than its sister show, embraces the weird, crafting creative Christmas fever dreams set to a musical score. This year continues that tradition, with XMAS!9 following Santa protégé and North Pole cop Jack as he tries to solve his beloved mentor’s murder, hold his family together, and (of course) save Christmas.

This was a show built on the strength of its script. So much more than a collection of good lines, XMAS!9 was a glimpse into a fantastical world, as brilliantly inventive as it was funny. Writers Jackson Fisher and Madison Seely imagine under-the-table dealings between Santa and the corrupt leprechauns, enthusiastic snow anchors bringing you the news live!, and a polar bear bartending at the Polar Bar. That said, there was an impressive collection of good lines.

The most adept use of humor in XMAS!9, however, was when it undercut the musical tropes and holiday expectations with quick instances of obscenity, building the expected fantasy world and then immediately subverting it with a bit of realism. This worked especially well with the marriage subplot. “Dad neglects family for work before learning the true meaning of Christmas” is every holiday movie you watched as a child, but XMAS!9 doesn’t update that story. It only points out how horrible it really is. In an understated but powerfully genuine performance of friendship, Mrs. Claus (Paulina Pinsky) and Joan (Lisa Harshman) talk about the unexpected place life has taken them and the role their husbands had in helping bring them there. “All work and no play,” Joan starts chippily, “makes Jack a shitty husband.”

It’s moments like this when XMAS!9 stood strongest. When a scene was confined to two or three actors, themselves confined, director Carolina Garrigo seemed to realize, in an implied limited space, they built energy and chemistry off of each other. Given no room to dissipate, this build up would collapse into either real emotion or great comedy.

This latter result was shown best in the several interrogation room scenes. These were Jonah Weinstein’s moments to shine. Bathed in a lone spotlight and soft jazz, Weinstein was never more comfortable, or more in command of the audience, then when he was delivering wry noir musings on everything from the case, Jack’s daughter, or the uncomfortable equestrian interests of Jack’s grandfather.

These ramblings preceded interrogation room back-and-forths between Jack and various members of the North Pole criminal elite, comedic showcases for Cole Hickman, Simone Norman, and Sebastien Siclait, as respectively the sociopathic Easter bunny/tycoon, the head of the notorious leprechaun family, and baby Cupid (looking like the “lovechild between Katniss Everdeen and a really horny bird”).

With a strong script, the cast to carry it, and direction that recongnized how to take advantage of both, it seemed like XMAS!9 could do no wrong.

Which brings us, at last, to the musical numbers.

They were not unbearable. They were not poorly performed. They were just not that good. Released from more focused scene work into broader musical numbers, actors seemed to lose their energy, their movement more cautious or awkward than at any other point. This was not helped by uninspired choreography. The songs themselves were fine, though at their best they seemed to echo better pieces from the Broadway tradition (the comparison doing no favors), and at their worst were completely unmemorable.

The musical numbers were the worst part of XMAS!9. And they were completely necessary. XMAS!9 is the kind of show that demands the elastic logic of a musical world, where anything can happen at the drop of a song. A musical world is more forgiving of the fantastic and juxtaposes better with harsh reality. The songs were a detriment to the show, but they were also prerequisite for the musical trope. And without that trope, XMAS!9 couldn’t have snow reporters or baby Cupid complaining about curling jock Santa. Snarky realism wouldn’t land quite as well, and energy would never be able to build to a manic peak. Without that trope, in other words, XMAS!9 wouldn’t be such a good show.

And that would be worse than getting coal every Christmas (knowing full well that judgmental Santa has a little cocaine habit)?

Editor’s Note, Dec. 10, 2014: We apologize for the implications of the statement that XMAS! is the “fall counterpoint to the Varsity Show.” To clarify: the writer asserts that XMAS!, as an original student comedy production, provides an excellent time and undergraduate energy not unlike that of the Varsity Show; the two productions are unrelated but share similarities in their creation and what they bring to our campus.

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