Staff writer Sydney Gerlach attended the December 15th live stream of the 15th Annual XMAS! show, Panic! At the Office, for an hour and a half of fun and humorous holiday hi-jinx written by Angela Lee (CC ‘22) and Ellie George (BC ‘23), and directed by Jack Becker (CC ‘21).
It was a dark and chilly night when I opened YouTube and started the live stream of this year’s XMAS: Panic! at the Office. When the stream began, I was pleasantly greeted with a screen filled with a jolly, digitized Santa’s workshop and a whole kooky cast of elves and corporate executives. While I admit, the combination is a bit jarring at first, it made for a delightful watch that poked fun at capitalism, Amazon, and the commodification of Christmas.
The story centers around two rival Christmas gift distributors: Santa’s Workshop and up and coming shipping company, Arctic, as they ramp up production for Christmas and search for new and innovative ideas that will put their company on top. Through corporate espionage and changing allegiances, a few prominent side stories emerge with an elf and Santa’s Workshop employee, Amy Sugars (Molly Martin GS ‘23), finding agency and her own voice in oppressive corporate environments. And elf, Sam Jingle-Bells (Susannah Abrams BC ‘23) and rival, Arctic employee, Alex Liu (Zita Tsui GS ‘21) become star-crossed lovers in the middle of a toy plagiarism scandal. Ultimately, the show emphasizes how important teamwork, love, and caring for one another triumphs over greed and competition.
The show was filled with many heartfelt moments, silly scenarios, and very sanguine musical numbers. In addition to the virtual format, the small cast of five made the show feel intimate and allowed each character their own spotlight. Santa’s Workshop elf, Amy Sugars, played with delightful pep and charm by Molly Martin, had many lovely solo moments, including the song “Selfish” (composed by Abby Rooney CC ‘22). Which is sung while undercover at Arctic for Santa about how she deserves better treatment from her boss, and that’s why she’s switching sides to work for the enemy.
Similarly, a slow and moving ballad comes in the form of Alex and Sam’s “Differences” (composed by Seth Schultheis MSM ’22), which frames their love in terms of hot cocoa and coffee, a pure and sincere holiday framing of modern, queer love.
While choosing to focus on one or two people in each number made the musical aspect of the show more conducive to the virtual format, there were still moments where the actors’ voices and backing tracks weren’t quite synched or where either the vocals or instrumentals’ volumes overwhelmed one another.
Staging a musical over Zoom is an incredibly daunting task so absolute kudos to the production team for arranging the backing tracks and the actors for their hard work in keeping time with the music. While the solo and duet numbers were fairly successful in this format, the group number “Countdown” (composed by James Pecore CC’23), while ambitious and well-arranged, did not translate as successfully due to lag and timing issues. Nevertheless, the music was well composed with lyrics that created nice vignettes of development for each of the characters and allowed each actor their time to shine.
Two performances that weren’t featured as heavily in musical numbers were that of Wesley Schmidt (CC ‘22) as Arctic CEO Brian Soseb and Santa Claus and Thomas Fisk (CC ‘22) as Arctic employee Jake. Schmidt’s upbeat energy and overexaggerated charm made Brian a charismatic yet slightly off-putting and menacing character which contrasted nicely with his gruff, deep vocal performance as Santa. Fisk, on the other hand, delivered Jake’s lines with dry wit and cynicism which provided a nice contrast to the other characters’ upbeat and cheery dispositions.
The production of this show was also quite impressive and framed the show within a carefully curated holiday gift box. The entire screen was filled with a virtual backdrop, with only the slight outline of each actor’s personal Zoom square. Thus, clearly establishing each setting and immersing the audience in the worlds of Santa’s Workshop, “Moonbucks” Coffee Shop, and Arctic Shipping.
Additionally, the designers created holiday gift wrap inspired slides so as to not break the atmosphere of the show in moments of transition. It was a small detail but helped maintain cheery holiday continuity throughout the stream.
The one thing that was slightly lacking, however, was the holiday inclusivity. Yes, the writers did include mentions of Hannukah and Kwanzaa within the framework of a largely Christmas-themed story, but it would’ve been nice to see more visual representations of the other holidays or further integration into the plot since XMAS! has branded itself as an all-inclusive holiday event.
Overall, XMAS!15 provided a much needed, light-hearted, and holiday spirited reprieve from finals week, while creatively utilizing a virtual performance format. It was an hour and a half of fun, heartfelt joy, and humor, which we all could use a little more of after this long and uncertain year.
Publicity Photo via XMAS at Columbia