A Harried Holiday Hullabaloo At Broadway Onstage

By Carolyn Hayes

Continuing its retrospective final season, Dennis Wickline Productions has elected to deck the halls of Broadway Onstage with a reprise of its 2012 comedy, "Christmas Belles" (by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten). Directed by Beverly Dickinson, this calamitous kitchen-sink farce considers what would happen if everything went terribly wrong all at once, and then asks, but what if it were also Christmas?

Life doesn't stop in little Fayro, Texas, just because it's Christmas Eve; rather, it pushes into overdrive. A series of scenic vignettes rolls out and propels a sleigh-full of diffuse story lines within the orbit of the three grown Futrelle sisters, each one pyrotechnic in her own way.

Vengeful Twink (Sharron Nelson), on a day pass of sorts from prison, is looking for her chance to settle the score with her wayward ex. Bitter Frankie (Sara Oravetz) feels the weight of a family secret almost as keenly as the weight of the past-due twins she's carrying. And defensive Honey Raye (Elizabeth Rager), having usurped control of the Tabernacle of the Lamb Church's annual Christmas program, is feeling pressures both internal and external to see her ambitious, unconventional vision through, despite cascading setbacks. Add to this a marriage proposal in the making, a chipper volunteer caterer, a sudden outbreak of latent food poisoning, and the meddlesome ousted program director, and the barrage of plot wrinkles hurtles forward by sheer momentum in anticipation of eventual convergence.

The script issues a challenge by setting much of the play backstage at the church, while the really exciting stuff is happening at the unseen rehearsal or various locales around town. It's a challenge to the company to keep the visible action as exciting as the vivid descriptions of mayhem. Here, the audience is treated to innumerable announcements of the latest catastrophe, town-crier-style, while watching a slew of unhappy people air and compare their myriad grievances.

The result prizes proclamation over interaction: With deliveries as big as...well, Texas, and plenty of here-it-comes! comic timing, there's a definite scarcity of even eye contact as the actors loll in sour introspection and put-upon affect. The effort falls short of humanizing the characters, culminating in objectives without stakes, shouting without conflict, and screwball mirth without merriment. Whether the audience is supposed to laugh at or laugh with the Fayro crew is almost uncomfortably unclear, and only grows murkier with inconstant Southern drawls and costuming as caricatured as Halloween.

Even so, the production is not without its highlights.

When illness befalls a retail-store Santa, Rick Mason's committed bellows are painfully humorous, especially playing off his overwhelmed little helper (John Arden McClure). Although CeCe Lesner grapples with maintaining the command befitting her snooty high-status character, she absolutely nails a late display of addled mortification. And as the only performer who indulges in more than his own character's hangups, generous scene partner Donald Couture makes his smitten sheriff the most charismatic of the bunch.

Viewers who are perhaps burned out by their own Christmas woes, and ready for a little perspective on true holiday commotion, may find like-minded solace in "Christmas Belles." The show takes derisive aim at the curious and critical trivialities of small-town Texas life and magnifies them through the stresses of the season, creating a supercharged environment for comically epic snags. Yet even so, there's a glimmer of holiday cheer to be found, and this production wraps it up with a bow, hoping to lift spirits at least high enough to sail on 'til Dec. 26.

REVIEW:

'Christmas Belles'

Broadway Onstage Live Theatre, 21517 Kelly Road, Eastpointe. 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday through Dec. 21, plus 2 p.m. Dec. 8 & 15. 2 hours. $18. 586-771-6333. http://www.broadwayonstage.com

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