Columbus Dispatch
November 21, 2008

Review | 'Hoopla'

Shadowbox at top of its game

By Michael Grossberg

The world may be in a mess and full of stress, but count on Shadowbox's annual Holiday Hoopla to find seasonal silver linings of humor, comfort and joy.

Glad tidings from the naughty but nicely updated 17th annual edition range from clever sketches and lively singing to the welcome reprise of beloved characters in top form.

At Thursday's well-received opening in Easton Town Center, the humor ran rampant from ripe new episodes of Temptation Island (an over-the-top soap-opera satire where more is more, more or less) and Jason's Scary Stories (a flashlight-focused pantomime that sheds amusing light on boyhood fantasies) to triumphant performances that bring to life Hoopla favorites Dasher and the Santa Babies.

Under Steve Guyer's well-paced direction and with crisp writing from a team led by Jimmy Mak, the show is tighter and better than many editions.

With two acts in two hours, including intermission, only the best company-created sketches and most dramatically potent songs are showcased, while the weak spots (mostly some short video parodies) are few and forgettable.

Among the funniest sketches: Merry Springer, which places unsuspecting Santa (Guyer) in the clutches of smarmy talk-show host Jerry Springer (David Whitehouse); and Vinnie's Christmas Special, in which grade-school kids receive poor instruction and worse example from Mak's sleazy gangster and his undercutting wife (Amy Lay).

Daily life may be full of challenge these days, but there's nothing more relaxing and entertaining than listening to Shadowboxers find just the right style and pitch to sell a song backed by the reliable BillWho? band.

Among the musical standouts: Noelle Grandison, adding jazzy spin to Silent Night; Mary Randle, giving a Big-Mama-style knock out of the park to B.B. King's Back Door Santa; and Guyer, who adds resonant authority to I Believe in Father Christmas.

Of course, no Hoopla would be complete without Julie Klein (backed by Stephanie Shull and others) delivering another crowd-pleasing reprise of Children Go Where I Send Thee, which has become almost as much of a Hoopla tradition as the Santa Babies.

Choreographer-dancer Katy Psenicka gives strange but effective Tim Burton-style twists to Sugar Plum Fairy, with Tchaikovsky's music adapted with a rock twang by Matthew Hahn. (Think of it as another nightmare before Christmas.)

As the macho reindeer Dasher, Mak returns to crisp military form in playwright Jeff Goode's original monologue with well-honed esprit de corps. Like boot-camp calisthenics, Mak's disciplined performance makes every word and gesture count.

The Santa Babies trio traditionally return each year from their round of "Wal-Mart openings and K-mart closings" to complete the second act. By now, these bawdy, silly Hoopla headliners have patented their own brand of shtick while smoothly updating ancient forms from Roman farce to vaudeville.

Unlike cartoon character Jessica Rabbit, who was only "drawn" bad, the curvaceous Babies are so enjoyably bad because they're so overdrawn.

After 17 years, this Las Vegas lounge-act parody remains amusing because Klein's innuendo-addicted Dixie, Shull's athletic but awkward Dorothy and Psenicka's innocently flirtatious Darlyn still have no clue just how "bad" they really are. (Will these gals never learn? Let's hope so.)

Shadowbox's familiar but somehow-fresh holiday show has become an annual gift to the community that keeps on giving comfort and joy.