Like the despised fruitcake that is passed from one generation to the next in Gary Apple’s hard-to-digest musical, Christmas in Hell, the show itself is an amalgam of strange ingredients. Sometimes sincere, usually madcap, but hardly ever having to do with Christmas, it is the tale of an 8-year-old boy mistakenly sent to Hades and the father who has to drink some Clamato to get him back. With one song that rhymes “Jesus” with “Chuck E. Cheese’s,” and another composed almost entirely of variations of the F-word, some in the audience may find the show in bad taste. With references to Charles Manson and Leona Helmsley, others may simply find it stale.
In the convoluted timeline of the first act, Richard (Scott Ahearn) grows concerned for his son, Davin (Elijah Rayman), when he starts crucifying frogs at school, and demonstrating a familiarity with the smell of burning sulfur. It turns out that Davin had been nibbling some decades-old fruitcake that landed him in the hospital. Unfortunately, he arrived at the same time that Charles Manson was being admitted and through some barely understandable goings-on, Davin briefly assumed Manson’s place in the underworld, missing out on Christmas, before Jesus came to the rescue and returned him to this mortal coil. Beelzebub’s grip is firm, however, and Davin is soon pursued by the devil’s lackey, the Bogeyman, whose real name is Carl (Zak Risinger). Carl’s own living hell involves having very large hands, a curse made worse by the fact that he carries around Satan’s banjo.
Yes, Satan’s banjo.
When a writer/composer/lyricist such as Apple introduces a banjo into a musical comedy, and it becomes the predominant prop throughout the first act, one imagines that the payoff will be a delightful country-tinged musical number with some fancy plucking. That turns out not to be the case. The instrument is never so much as strummed, nor do the production’s four hidden musicians offer any synthesized approximation. With Richard traveling to Hell in Act II, aided by a magical elixir that may or may not contain actual clam, the banjo is simply forgotten about. Instead, Lucifer (Brandon Williams) appears, God (Donna English) has a cameo, and Richard wins back Davin’s soul by singing this important lesson:
More than cheddar, more than Swiss,
You may think that 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.
Ahearn, under the direction of Bill Castellino, offers these lyrics with heartfelt sincerity, highlighting the problem of being a protagonist who is also the show’s straight man. He sings with an especially fine tenor and brings some actual pathos to his character, but he is consumed by the flaming performances that surround him. These include veteran character actor Ron Wisniski chewing up the scenery while crooning about the joys of confession as Father McDuffy, and the charming Lori Hammel as Galiana, a soothsayer and love interest to Carl. Her comic song, “There Is Nothing More That I Can Say,” is both the least important and most entertaining number of the night.
Ten-year old Rayman, fresh from his lead role in Oliver! at the Goodspeed Opera House, sings admirably but is frustratingly sweet, given that his character is in need of an exorcism. An entire number is dedicated to how his behavior, including interests in napalm and anthrax, is “Fuck-a-dup-dup,” but on stage he never comes across as anything other than cherubic. And Williams is a charismatic Lucifer, risking damnation given that his realm resides in the York Theatre Company’s home in the basement of Saint Peter’s Church on Lexington Avenue. Scenic designer James Morgan fills the space with colorful walls of fire and revolving Greek columns.
Apple, primarily a TV comedy writer, constructs his book and lyrics with a definite sitcom sensibility and timing. When he finally gets around to addressing Christmas, in the finale, it’s staged within a torture chamber where “Every Day Is Christmas in Hell,” and carolers are up to, “On the millionth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me….” He also has a small-screen way of padding scenes with extra characters to fill out a storyline. There are times when the musical suddenly transforms into a police procedural, with a detective and his sidekick officer (Dathan B. Williams and Risinger) questioning Richard for no other reason than to roll the narrative forward. It’s Hell on wheels.
Christmas in Hell burns through Dec. 30 at the York Theatre Company at Saint Peter’s (entrance on East 54th Street, just east of Lexington Avenue). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Wednesdays and at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinees are at 2:30 Saturdays and Sundays. For information and tickets, call (866) 811-4111 or visit yorktheatre.org.