By Sarah Downs
Christmas in Hell is a delightful show that celebrates the holidays with tongue securely in cheek. It keeps you chuckling from start to finish, with catchy tunes, bright colors and clever lyrics. This is not your typical Christmas story; it’s more Orpheus and Eurydice meets A Christmas Carol meets Benny Hill. What’s not to love!
In brief, Davin (Elijah Rayman) a normally sweet boy has begun acting a little oddly, to say the least, and his father Richard (Scott Ahearn) is called to the child’s school, where Davin’s teacher Mrs. Huvey (Donna English) and the Principal (Ron Wisniski) demonstrate the degree to which the child is … disturbed. No one can figure out what’s up. Well, what’s up is that Davin has been hanging out with the devil. Carl the Bogeyman (Zak Risinger) who has been hiding in Davin’s closet, introduced them. (I hate it when that happens!)
Well, the police are called in, and as Richard begins to tell this outlandish story to tough-talking, impatient Detective Zanderhoff (Dathan B. Williams), we all accompany Richard on his journey to hell and back. He begins at, where else, church. Rituals lead to potions, lead to the mysterious Galiana (Lori Hammel) who gives Richard his entree to that sulfuric realm where he meets – surprise – Carl! Decked in the latest disco-satanic duds, Carl leads Richard to meet a glamorous, well-coiffed, studly Lucifer (Brandon Williams).
Christmas in Hell is happily and unapologetically theatrical, staged on a brightly colored set by James Morgan with painted backdrops, cardboard cutouts and set pieces the actors roll on and off stage. It’s lighthearted and effective, especially when Yael Lubetsky’s richly hued lighting hits it. When it comes to the color wheel, no expense is spared. Tyler M. Holland has designed costumes that range from plain Jane grammar school teacher to kitschy Christmas to a glamorous, shiny, bedazzled hell.
In the same spirit, the actors wring every drop of humor out of each lyric. They are clearly having a great time, which is 90% of what makes comedy work. As Principal Bolton and Priest Wisniski is hysterical, gleefully enjoying every wicked take. Dathan B. Williams as Detective Zanderhoff is having none of it, however, sputtering in exasperation at the wackiness around him. As the devil, Brandon Williams manages to combine punk and humor in his dead sexy Lucifer. He has great material and he sells it, in a smooth baritone voice that suits his persona perfectly. As Galiana, Lori Hammel tears up the stage vocally and theatrically, in flowing gown and diva characterization. When she meets up again with her beloved Bogeyman, it becomes a battle of who can be the bigger drama queen. Zak Risinger’s lanky, melodramatic Carl just might be the winner there. And then there’s God, a/k/a Mrs. Huvey, Davin’s grammar school teacher. God is as glamorous as Mrs. Huvey is dowdy, yet Donna English inhabits their diversity with ease. At the center stands little Davin. Elijah plays the role with just the right level of childlike naughtiness and charm.
All of the actors, many of them playing several roles, sing well and move comfortably around the stage, relishing every moment. It is familiar terrain for this experienced cast. What’s best is that they let us in on the fun, not just as audience members but as participants in a show that feels fresh, like a work in progress. This is what we are here for.
Christmas in Hell with book, music, and lyrics by Gary Apple, directed and choreographed by Bill Castellino, music direction, supervision, and arrangements by Logan Medland; featuring Scott Ahearn, Donna English, Lori Hammel, Elijah Rayman, Zak Risinger, Brandon Williams, Dathan B. Williams and Ron Wisniski. James Morgan, scenic design; Tyler M. Holland, costume design; Yael Lubetzky, lighting design; Julian Evans, sound design; Zach Serafin, props. Runs through December 30, 2018 at The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter’s, 619 Lexington Ave. (entrance on East 54th Street, just East of Lexington Ave.) For tickets go to: Ovation.tix or call the box office (212) 935-5820.