Sometimes in life, it’s the last Christmas present we open that makes up for all the lousy ones we unwrapped before. In what is truly the most dismal season of holiday-themed shows, I happened upon one on Christmas Eve which, unbeknownst to me, has been an annual event for 13 years. Santasia: A Holiday Comedy came to my attention from an Ovation voter who saw the Kids in the Hall-type, holiday-themed Vaudeville last year when this tender and irreverent entertainment was Ovation-nominated as Best Production of the Year.
Produced and created by siblings Shaun and Brandon Loeser,Santasia is a stocking stuffer of a show, 22 gifts in all: Dysfunctional family sketches, musical parodies ofThe Lion King and Chicago, skits (including a Nutcracker andWilliam Tell Overture sleigh-ride ballet), and more have attracted a loyal fan base that has the show selling out every night (returnees will always see something new). Does it sound crazy that I knew I was in for something special when I was greeted by snowfall in front of the theater? Inside the lobby, it was as if a party was in full swing, with hot apple cider and yummy homemade cookies working their way around the cramped space.
The co-performers and -writers along with the Loesers are James Elden, Andrew J. Hillis, Lon Gowan, and Rusty Locke; and while their alumni status with Second City, Comedy Sportz, and iO (formerly known as “ImprovOlympic”) certainly shows in the slick and silly skits, the event was so unpretentious that I couldn’t shake the feeling of nostalgia, as if I was home with family celebrating the holidays. The icing on the sugar cookie was a series of remembrances from each of the cast that actually had me choking up; it’s clear that this elfish crew really want to celebrate the holidays with joy. The press release is spot-on when the show is proclaimed as a “perfect blend of yuletide snark and sentiment.” It also doesn’t hurt that, unlike the atrocious Twist Your Dickens by Second City, these guys never beat a dead horse with their comedy: A sketch involving the Virgin Mary on Jerry Springer wisely ended with us wanting more. The cast also featured Art Oden.
Leitmotifs of Easy-Bake Ovens, discontented elves, a penguin, and an Abominable Snow Monster are spread not just through the sketches but in highly polished films. The live-action and animated shorts are beyond impressive:
“Brokeback Igloo” is a parody done “Coming Attraction”-style about a pair of men who escape to the mountains to make toys…and love; while the premise is humorous, it is actually quite moving in its earnestness. An homage to stop-motion Rankin/Bass “Animagic”* can be seen in a few shorts, but “Pulp Christmas” (directed and animated by Michael Granberry), which is about – you guessed it – two of Santa’s hit-elves, is not only funny, but disturbing.
Shaun Loeser’s scenic design is keenly in reverence to the imposing decorations he remembers from his childhood, and Dave Watson must have had a ball stringing up all of those lights. Tania Pearson-Loeser did double-duty by not only stitching together a slew of preposterous outfits, but doling out some delightful and wholly original choreography.
My only quibble is that Shaun Loeser, as director, didn’t keep his cast (including himself) from screaming for comic effect – there’s a fine line between a misbehaving child and volume that makes your teeth chatter. Also, since the show clocks in at almost two hours, the very nature of sketch comedy demands a break (plus, I was dying for more of those cookies).
It’s a relief to know that I don’t have to buy a plane ticket to see family next year – I just have to drive to Sherman Oaks.