Here’s a bit of Biblical trivia for you. According to the Gospel According To The Troubies, there were not one but two pregnant women at the Bethlehem Inn on December 25th of the year 0. Joseph and Mary were there, of course, but unbeknownst until now, an unmarried couple named Manolo and Letty were about to give birth as well—or at least so we’re told in this year’s Troubadour Theatre Company holiday show, The First Jo-el.


Following in the Navidad tradition of JACKson FROST, It’s A Stevie Wonderful Life, Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Motown, The Little Drummer Bowie, A Charlie James Brown Christmas, and last December’s Frosty The Snow Manilow, The First Jo-el takes the songs of a world-renowned music star (a “Piano Man” named Billy this time round), rewrites the lyrics to fit this year’s Christmas tale, adds plenty of raucous comedy and loads of adlibs, sprinkles in some energetic choreography, and wraps it all up with performances by some of the finest triple-threats in town. The result this year is one of the Troubies’ best shows ever (and that includes their non-holiday fare as well).

It’s also one of the most song-filled Troubie productions in their fifteen year history, not surprising considering how many hit songs Billy Joel has penned and performed over the past four decades. There’s so much Billy to sing that The First Jo-el even merits one of the first Troubadour intermissions—ever!

Following a preshow warm-up featuring Troubies head honcho Matt Walker as a three-foot high Tiny Tim (in a shopping cart!) accompanied by an ugly-sweatered matron, a homeless woman, and a Russian mail order bride (I’m serious), The First Jo-el soon introduces us to its lead characters to the strains of “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant,” with Brenda and Eddie becoming “Greta and Nick—they always know how to survive.” Bethlehem Inn proprietors Greta (Lisa Valenzuela) and Nick (Jack McGee) are none too happy this December 25th as their daughter Letty (Katie Nuñez) is nine-months pregnant and still not married to Spanish-Palestinian-with-a-Peruvian-accent stable boy Manolo (Matt Morgan).


It’s not completely clear why Letty doesn’t want to tie the knot with Manolo, though it could have something to do with those nurses’ shoes he’s in the habit of wearing. (“It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me” becomes “It’s Still Dr. Scholls For Me,” accompanied by Eric Heinly and his band—who share an onstage stable with a pair of asses.) Letty is no more happy with Daddy’s anti-Manolo attitude than she is with Manolo’s ugly shoes: “If Dad keeps it up, then I’m … Movin’ Out!”

Business isn’t exactly booming at the Bethlehem Inn. Greta and Nick’s adjoining café has only two customers (picked from the audience to sit onstage during the show). Their unpregnant daughter Hoffy (Beth Kennedy) spends hours a day pumping lemonade in her Hot Dog On A Stick uniform, to little customer satisfaction, and nobody ever seems to get those customers’ order.

Fortunately, there’s a particularly bright star in the heavens these nights, one that has brought three Sopranos-style Wise Guys to the Bethlehem Inn. Well, at least two of them—Gold (Walker) and Myr (Brandon Breault)—could pass for Tony Soprano’s henchmen. The third, portrayed by Morgan Rusler, happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to his namesake, Frankenstein, and though he does his darnedest to keep up with Molly Alvarez’s choreography, Frank’s always one or two hilarious steps behind. As for the reason for the Wise Guys’ trek across field and fountain, moor and mountain, they explain, “We may be right, or we may be crazy, but it just may be the Savior that we’re looking for,” sung to the tune of “You May Be Right.”


Greta and Nick sense that the Wise Guys’ arrival at the Bethlehem Inn may be just what the doctor ordered, if only they can pass Letty off as the virginal expectant mom an angel has foretold. Soon, there’s a huge sign atop the inn proclaiming MIRACLE MOM HERE, and before you know it, Nick can turn on the NO above the VACANCY sign. At long last, there’s no room at the inn.

Other characters make their appearances, including a trio of singing-dancing angels (Christine Lakin, Katherine Malak, and Jackie Seiden), the 10-foot-tall Winter Warlock (Kennedy again, or is it?) from last year’s Frosty The Snow Manilow, and King Herod (Rusler) and wife Virginia (Kennedy). (To the notes of “I’m in a New York state of mind,” Herod warbles, “I’m the only factual character in this show.”) Oh, lest I forget, two more dramatis personae show up just before the Act One curtain—a carpenter named Joseph (Walker) and his very pregnant virgin bride Mary (Malak).

Twenty or so Billy Joel hits get performed over the course of The First Jo-el’s fast and furious two hours. “Angry Young Man” becomes “Angry Young Manolo,” Letty is the “Uptown Girl” and Manolo her backstreet guy, “We Didn’t Start The Fire” turns into “We’re Waiting For Messiah” (“though he’s a tiny fetus, soon he’ll greet us”), and “Always A Woman” features the cleverly tweaked “We’re having a child but she’s always a virgin to me.”) In one of the show’s best sequences, Letty and Manolo sing “Just The Way You Are,” Joseph and Mary duet “Always A Woman,” and Nick and Greta croon “She’s Got A Way” in counterpoint. Oh, and as for “Only The Good Die Young,” it becomes Herod’s decree, “Only The Boys Die Young.” (Those under two years of age, of course.)

Naturally, there are all those impromptu (or seemingly impromptu) moments that Troubies fans cherish and keep coming back for more of—as when Walker quips, “I didn’t even come close to getting that line right … and don’t read your program in the front row!” Topical references abound. The Winter Warlock explains its presence in the show: “TV’s all reruns now and I figured ‘Road Trip.’” Jokes are made about the Chilean miners and Baby Jessica. The Winter Warlock recognizes Nick (McGee) as the actor currently playing Mark Wahlberg’s father in The Fighter and wisecracks, “I’ll bet it’s things like that that let you do things like this.”

Walker (who also directed) and Kennedy once again prove themselves two of L.A. theater’s most brilliant, unique talents. McGee turns out to be quite a song-and-dance man, and Valenzuela is not only a comedienne extraordinaire but one hell of a singer. Lakin, Malak, and Seiden make for a dazzling trio of triple-threat Angels. Both Morgan and Nuñez are utterly charming and charismatic as Manolo and Letty. The ever astounding Rusler steals every scene he’s in, regardless of whether he’s Frankenstein or Herod. Breault too does winning work, and Andy Lopez (billed only as King Herod’s spy) deserves high marks for a role that won’t be revealed here (and for not insisting on getting credit for it in the program).

Alvarez’s inventive choreography can get quite athletic and acrobatic, prompting Manolo at one point to beg our pardon for lip-synching his vocal solo to someone else’s offstage voice. The entire cast shows off their adroit dancing feet in several splashy production numbers. Hey, even the donkey gets to dance.

As always, musical director-drummer Heinly and his band—Tori Ruffin (guitar), Kevin McCourt (keyboards), Justin Panariello (bass) and Hayan Charlston (sax & EWI, i.e. electronic wind instrument)—provide bang-up back-up, with an extra round of applause for Charlson’s sax solo. Mike Jespersen’s colorful set, Naomi Yoshida’s imaginative costumes, Jeremy Pivnick’s splashy lighting, and Julie Ferrin’s crystal-clear sound make for an overall topnotch design package. Katherine Haan is stage manager, Mike Sulprizio producer, and Corey Womack producer/prop designer.

The Troubies hardly need rave reviews like this one to sell out, but raves they get—time and time again—and another seven Ovation Award nominations for their past season (winners to be announced in January). There may be Christmassier shows around town, but there’s surely no other holiday production with The First Jo-el’s blend of comedy, song, dance, and the unexpected. There’s a star shining over the Falcon Theatre through January and it points the way to The First Jo-el.

Troubadour Theatre Company, Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank.

–Steven Stanley
December 15, 2010
Photos: Chelsea Sutton

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