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Gimmicks, to paraphrase Gypsy’s trumpet-wielding strumpet, are the surest way to get ahead in showbiz, and no one has taken the adage more warmly to heart than the creators of Naked Boys Singing!, an entertainment so shamelessly and cheerfully empty that it flaunts both gimmick and marketing strategy in the space most shows reserve for a title.
And it’s not the only overstretched concept on local stages this holiday season (though it’s certainly the least of them). Signature Theatre mainstay Donna Migliaccio, a brass-lunged audience-pleaser in everything from A Little Night Music to Sweeney Todd to Gypsy itself, has gotten herself a vehicle that the company is already touting, somewhat threateningly, as a “new family tradition”: The Christmas Carol Rag, a pleasant but ultimately toothless Dickens adaptation centered on Migliaccio’s miserly Evelyn Scrooge. Maybe it’s just a critic’s curmudgeonly reaction to the already snowballing aura of holiday cheer, but of last weekend’s three theatrical outings, the one that inspired the warmest thoughts about my fellow man was Cherry Red Productions’ Dingleberries, a mercifully brief and monstrously childish evening of playlets devoted to discussing—you guessed it—our intimate relationship with poo.
Presumably, that’s because the blithely offensive inmates of Ian Allen’s potty-mouthed menagerie don’t care in the slightest whether we learn anything about ourselves in the hour-and-10 they spend rummaging through the recesses of our bathrooms—though we could, as it happens. In 16 short takes from as many unapologetically scatological playwrights (ranging from Cherry Red’s own, including Allen and Anton Dudley, to various New York and Chicago talents), the ensemble rubs the audience’s collective nose in some stinky truths about things most of us probably prefer not to think about. Subjects include those freaky, frat-boyish guys who take a kind of paternal pride in taking a prodigious dump (Justin Tanner’s “Proud Papa”); the inane paralytic anxiety of the WASP forced to speak through the door of a toilet stall (Allen’s “Somebody’s in Here”); and the Ugly American’s legendary aversion to bathroom-sharing while on holiday abroad (Paul Menard’s xenophobe-skewering “American Standard”). Dingleberries even manages to cast an aspersion or two before the swinish real-estate brokers of our greatest urbs: In Teddy Ostrow’s “Convenience,” a hard-selling agent demands “the first month’s rent, the last month’s rent, a deposit for the cleaning fee, the rights to your firstborn child, and a gram of cocaine” in exchange for a studio that’s little more than a shitter. (A plywood sheet on the tub is “a Pacific-style extra-firm bed,” and “the tank doubles as a beer cooler.”)
None of this is to suggest that there’s much meaning to be mined from among the droppings. For each whit of perceptive (if sophomoric) writing, Dingleberries serves up a whole lot of Jackass-style toilet humor. There’s not a lot of point to Tom Doyle’s “The Loch Ness Toilet Monster,” an underwritten skidmark of a skit whose title gives away as much as Naked Boys Singing! does, or to Mark Osele’s “Broken Water,” which revisits such tired subjects as bathroom-birthing prom queens and lesbian high-school principals.
Then again, there’s no imaginable reason to reconfigure Poe’s “The Raven” as a dark epic about constipation—and hemorrhoids, inevitable consequence thereof. But Erica Hoffman’s rewrite, decked out in couplets that rhyme “my back door” with “that dirty slut Lenore” and delivered with admirable stone-faced concentration by Richard Renfield, brings down what is, by then, a merrily revolted house.
I cannot say with any certainty what wretchedness is on offer in A Christmas Carol at Ford’s Theatre this year; I have, by way of establishing a holiday tradition of my own, refused to review it for some seasons now. But to prove to my editors that I am no mere Christmas-hater, I volunteered to drop in on Norman Allen’s new twist on the Dickens perennial, which moves the action to sweatshop-era Alphabet City and makes Scrooge a Mrs.—a hard-nosed garment-factory owner who’s blind to human kindness but all too aware of the hurdles facing a businesswoman in 1911 New York.
As gimmicks go, Allen’s isn’t a bad one, though it inevitably leads to perilous territory: It’s one thing to point out that Ebenezer Scrooge would’ve been a better man if he’d balanced his work and his love life a little more judiciously, but to say the same about an Evelyn Scrooge, you’d better be careful not even to hint that she shoulda stayed home and made babies. Allen’s script is too carefully crafted to say so deliberately, of course, but between a lost-love-of-a-good-man subplot and a bit of overdramatic stage business involving an empty blankie, the Signature Theatre’s production sure suggests it.
That whiff of unintentional sexism isn’t the only sour note in The Christmas Carol Rag. (Literally: The assembled vocal forces handed out honkers aplenty the night I saw it, though pianist Jay Crowder delivered jauntily all evening long.) More disappointing is the way the show sags under the weight of its too-familiar plot, which feels like little more than a motion to be gone through despite the gender switch and a series of smaller tweaks Allen has applied.
Several of these are fine additions, actually, though the gospel-wailing Ghost of Christmas Present doesn’t liven things up quite the way the Catskills-comic Ghost of Christmas Past does; maybe it’s just that Chrystyna Dail’s sarcastic Yiddish is funnier than Eleasha Gamble’s asides to her backup choir. I especially admire the notion of weaving tunes from the American songbook (everything from a little-known George M. Cohan amusement called “Then I’d Be Satisfied With Life” to Joseph E. Howard’s standard “Goodbye, My Lady Love”) in among the ragged-out Christmas carols with which Allen and arranger Howard Breitbart have anchored the evening—though ultimately, I think, the show could have used the sense of unity a single composer might have brought to it.
As for Naked Boys Singing!—well, they’re fine-looking boys, they’re naked pretty much all night long, and they sing well enough not to embarrass themselves. And despite a couple of lyrics that argue otherwise (“Nakedness is just another window to the soul,” one song claims), that’s essentially the extent of the show’s pretensions. Director Jeff Keenan might have done more to soft-pedal the show’s few mortifying attempts at meaningfulness—the longing “Window to Window,” in which a maudlin little muscle boy gazes longingly across the street at a similarly naked neighbor, is so hopelessly sappy that someone should pass out syrup buckets—but he basically keeps things as light and bright as the material will allow.
Which—and I don’t wish to be harsh—is light to the point of weightlessness: The songs are utterly forgettable, with the single exception of a little gem titled “Kris,” whose lame lyrics can’t obscure a ravishing, nearly Sondheimian melody. The book—well, there’s not one. The rest of “the material,” of course, is flesh, of which there’s a great deal. Perhaps the kindest thing to say about Keenan’s nine nude troupers is that they didn’t seem the slightest bit unnerved during Sunday’s half-empty matinee, when the audience seemed divided between Dupont Circlers too dignified to laugh and a handful of patrons too busy with their trench coats to notice what was funny. CP