Forced holiday cheer is a fragile thing. The right amount can send you bouncing and singing into the snowy night, ready to do good deeds for any passing shoeless urchin speaking with an adorable Cockney accent. If it comes off wrong, it's easy to turn into a modern-day Scrooge, blasting Fear's "Fuck Christmas" on a continuous loop while the lights on the front of the house are arranged as giant, red-and-green middle fingers.
Last weekend, Comedy Suitcase's Christmas: Impossible hewed closer to the first, while the History Theatre's Christmas of Swing left me grumbling, with visions of evil decorations, all the way home.
Christmas of Swing is a return engagement for the St. Paul company, which has found success with its Andrews Sisters shows. Here, the sisters are rehearsing for a Christmas Eve USO show in 1944, singing plenty of songs and reading letters from servicemen. The closest thing to dramatic tension comes from their manager, who doesn't want them to read the letters during the show because...well, we never really get an explanation for that.
Christmas: ImpossibleBryant Lake Bowl810 W. Lake St., Minneapolis612.825.8949; through Dec. 9
Christmas of SwingHistory Theatre30 E. 10th St., St. Paul651.292.4323; through Dec. 23
On a musical level, the three actors playing the sisters — Ruthie Baker, Stacey Lindell, and Jen Burleigh-Bentz — bring the goods, diving into the Christmas songbook with gusto and plenty of class. Their male counterparts are more uneven. The chemistry between Mark Rosenwinkel and Bill Scharpen is deadly, rendering various comedy bits as dull as drying paint. Scharpen gets the worst of this, as he is particularly unimpressive as Bing Crosby and then brings the proceedings to a screeching halt as Mrs. Roosevelt. (To be fair, the pair do a fun reading of "Der Fuehrer's Face.")
I don't need Hamlet from my holiday shows, but I want to be engaged enough that I can sink in and go to a different place for a couple of hours. That happens occasionally in Christmas of Swing — the letters home are often very effective — but I could have replicated that with an anthology of World War II writings and some Andrews Sisters 78s.
Christmas: Impossible is also a slight thing, a quick romp through the mind of Tim Uren brought to life by Comedy Suitcase at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. It also has plenty of "Let's clean the barn and put on a show!" energy that puts a lot of the bigger-budget holiday productions to shame.
Puppeteer Andy Kraft is the star here, bringing an assortment of cute (and not cute at all) toys to life. These toys, you see, have gone rogue, under the leadership of an evil mastermind. A secret-agent assault goes terribly wrong, leaving the last agent (Tina North) only one option: Santa Claus (Uren). He enlists a naughty child with mad computer skills (Levi Weinhagen) to infiltrate the base, defeat the evil mastermind, and save Joshua English Scrimshaw's secret agent/toy critic blogger.
Uren's script is a bit underdone, as the comedic density isn't as high as in past Comedy Suitcase productions. Then again, there are some pretty inspired moments, such as Scrimshaw getting pwnd by a teddy bear or a post-curtain-call "fight" that spreads out onto Lyndale Avenue.