The Asphalt Christmas
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 8, 2011
The Asphalt Christmas, the new holiday-flavored comedy/parody/satire by Todd Michael, will NOT remind you of the True Meaning of Christmas, nor will it challenge your assumptions in a transgressive way about dysfunctional holiday family gatherings, nor will it deconstruct or merrily discombobulate holiday cheer and its iconography. No: unlike the umpteen dozen December shows in NYC that do one or more of those things, The Asphalt Christmas is happy to simply do one thing extremely well: give the audience a rip-roarin' fun and funny evening. I highly recommend it for anyone who is od'ing on Christmas Spirit in any form.
Because, although Christmas is part of the title and a Christmas pageant is an important part of the plot in The Asphalt Christmas, this delicious ersatz film melodrama of early '50s vintage is not about Christmas at all. What it is about—like all of Todd Michael's marvelous plays—is The Movies, in all their silly, glitzy glory. Usually Michael focuses on just one or two films which he mashes up to make something weird and hilarious (for example, his recent Right Cross Rhapsody improbably melded Golden Boy and 42nd Street together). This time, Michael has poured literally dozens of classic flicks into the stew: everything from Holiday Inn to Going My Way to The Singing Nun to The Exorcist to (natch) The Asphalt Jungle is in the mix, along with lots of others (including some I probably didn't catch). And there's some Broadway here as well: the opening vamp of the 1932 Ethel Merman song hit "Eadie Was a Lady" is used quite brilliantly, for example, as is a reference to an iconic Merman role later on.
The plot is astonishingly complex, considering how neatly it's all tied up in just 80 minutes. Let me try to summarize. 15-year-old Veda Munson is a student at St. Celestine's School in New York City in 1950. She's a favorite among the sisters who run the school, but lately any student who has crossed her has ended up in the hospital. Father Patrick Dennis O'Day, the new curate assigned to St. Celestine's, finds out that Veda's long-lost mother is none other than Dixie La Hiff, a stripper at Pishky's Burlesque. He manages to reunite mother and daughter, exorcise the devil that has taken possession of Veda, and triumphantly stage the school Christmas pageant, despite all sorts of obstacles, including a gangster breaking out of prison, a drunken Irish priest mentor, a teenage boy with a crush on him, and the very formidable Sister Mary Bernadette, a large nun with shockingly bright red lipstick who is the mother superior.
As always, Michael's dialogue and plotting mines familiar cliches in fresh ways and juxtaposes things that shouldn't go together (a burlesque queen and a ruler-wielding nun, for example). The result is near-non-stop laughter.
Michael takes the role of Dixie La Hiff, another of his trademark tough-talking-dames-with-a-heart-of-gold. Also in drag is David L. Zwiers as Sister Mary Bernadette, who is just as much campy fun. Chris Kateff is charming as the constantly ambivalent Father O'Day (and shows off a fine tenor singing "Toorelora"), while Jessica Luck is dead-on as the sometimes sweet but mostly preternaturally evil Veda. Matt Harris is fun as the inept Mickey Loomis, the kid who is taken with Father O'Day, and Nancy Kellogg Gray is very funny as the dithery Sister Mary Joseph. In multiple roles are Timothy J. Cox (particularly spot-on as Eddie Knight, Dixie's fiance, a vaudevillian-turned-cop), Brian Hopson (as an assortment of nasties), and Courtney Cook (who excels as both Dixie's dressing room-mate at the burlesque house and the mother of one of Veda's rivals).
The enterprise is directed by Lawrence Lesher and produced by Gracye Productions, with economy and spunk. On-target costumes are by Zwiers, and an appropriate and helpful soundscape is provided by Louis Lopardi, who also designed the lighting.
With commercialized Christmas cheer bombarding us relentlessly from about Halloween on, these days, a Christmas show that's not about Christmas is a surprisingly welcome treat. As is anything Todd Michael and company dream up. The Asphalt Christmas is my pick for this holiday season.