One of America’s most beloved holiday movie classics is back … and live on stage in Theatre Unleashed’s West Coast Premiere of Josh Carson’s A Very Die Hard Christmas, the Bruce Willis megasmash as seen through a Saturday Night Live lens, with puppets and songs thrown in for hilarious measure.
If you haven’t ever thought of Die Hard as a silver-screen Christmas classic right up there with It’s A Wonderful Life, Miracle On 34th Street, and Santa Claus: The Movie, then ask yourself this:
Christmas Eve, duh, which is why A Very Die Hard Christmas’s arrival at the most wonderful time of the year could well become a Theatre Unleashed tradition, just as it has been these past four Decembers in playwright Carson’s native Minneapolis.
You don’t have to have seen Die Hard (let alone any of its four sequels) to laugh your socks off as the dastardly Hans Gruber and his massively armed band of Teutonic terrorists do their dirty work, but a look at Wikipedia’s convenient plot summary will double your pleasure, double your fun.
It doesn’t hurt either to be familiar with the stop-motion holiday perennial Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, since it’s the TV special’s Snowman narrator who opens the evening with “It’s A Very Die Hard Christmas” (sung to the tune of “Holly Jolly Xmas”) in which he warns the audience that “it’s rated R, they go too far, and your mom might get pissed,” i.e. the actors say “fuck” a lot.
Carson’s script follows Steven E. de Souza and Jeb Stuart’s movie script (based on Roderick Thorp’s novel Nothing Lasts Forever) closely enough to please the most diehard of Die Hard fans, who (as Snowman Sgt. Al Upton points out) probably “know the story so well you can’t wait to point out the glaring errors that are about to happen.”
Wade Wilson stars as John McClane opposite David Foy Bauer’s Hans Gruber, with Sean Fitzgerald, Adam Meredith, and Bradley Upton as Schnell, Douche, and Karl, the terrorist trio generating multiple laughs from the fact that no one appears to know the meaning of schnell.
Meredith doubles as McClane’s driver Argyle, blissfully unaware of what’s unfolding high above him in the Nakatoni Plaza, whose partygoers include John’s estranged wife Holly Gennaro (Liesl Jackson), a very pregnant Ginny (Margaret Glaccum), and Linus (Fitzgerald), along with quickly dispatched CEO Mr. Takagi (Steven Stanley at the performance reviewed*).
Additional terrorists get brought to life by sock puppet Feivel from An American Tail, doll Hermie The Elf from Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, a life-sized Yukon Cornelius (Fitzgerald) from the same TV special, and none other than James Stewart as George Bailey (Fitzgerald again), whose arrival atop Sgt. Al’s squad car finally convinces the sarge that John McClane is no crackpot.
Among the evening’s songs are takeoffs on “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late),” “You Make It Feel Like Christmas,” and “Where Are You Christmas?”, and there are almost enough of them to make A Very Die Hard Christmas qualify as a musical if only its cast could sing, though this is truly one case where vocal expertise (or even the ability to carry a tune) hardly matters.
Under Gregory Crafts’ direction, the cast score laugh after laugh in performances that at times seem almost improvised, and though there are moments the show could benefit from greater precision, Crafts and company’s freewheeling approach suits the material (very SNL meets Mel Brooks) and they are a comedically talented bunch, beginning with the production’s charismatic leading man.
Yes, rising star Wade Wilson is a tad darker complexioned than the movie’s pasty-faced Bruce Willis, but a “Black Irish” John McClane is more than a-okay when it’s talented, charismatic young Spike Lee protégé Wilson fighting evil with and sex-appeal and good.
Debonaire native Brit Bauer proves the next best thing to Alan Rickman as Hans (and does a spot-on Southern drawl when needed), the leggy Jackson proves herself a deft comedienne as Holly … and looks luscious even in her horrific ‘80s big-hair wig, and Glaccum is a deliciously dimwitted hoot as the very preggers Ginny.
Upton is mostly fine as a deadpan Al and the more volatile Karl, while Fitzgerald scores as a dangerous if somewhat inept terrorist, a well-meaning but equally ineffectual Nakatomi employee, a grizzly Yukon Cornelius, and a spot-on Jimmy Stewart.
Funniest of all among supporting player is Meredith in three hilarious roles (in addition to Argyle and Douche, he’s also the unctuous TV reporter Richard Thornburg), and in one breakneck sequence he plays all three virtually at once.
Since much of Die Hard takes place on the unfinished floors of the Nakatomi Plaza, the production’s stripped-down dry-wall set and folding chairs and tables suit the “rough, unpolished, raw” spirit described in Crafts’ director’s note. (Tamazine Fritz is set design consultant and Ann Hurd is scenic painter.)
Aaron Lyon’s sound design earns top marks for dramatic musical underscoring, multiple effects (including gunshots galore), and a half-dozen or so karaoke tracks. Brandie June’s costumes pay tribute to the movie original’s styles and era. Upton’s puppet design and construction are both expertly achieved.
Best of all are the impressively realistic fights choreographed by J. Anthony McCarthy and executed by some very fit cast members (including one doll-on-man confrontation that earns huge laughs and applause), with special snaps due technical director Mark Bell’s deliberately low-tech special effects, i.e. explosive confetti galore.
Music director/choreographer Lindsay Braverman makes the most of her cast’s rather limited song-and-dance gifts.
A Very Die Hard Christmas was created by Carson, Andy Kraft, and Brad Erickson. Matthew Martin is stage manager. Understudy June covers Ginny and Grayson Schlichter understudies Douche and Schnell.
As it has in snowy Minneapolis, A Very Die Hard Christmas could well become an annual cult holiday hit for Theatre Unleashed.
As for Christmas Present, perhaps John McClane put it best when he declared, “Yippee-ki-yay motherfucker!”—his way of informing Angelinos that A Very Die Hard Christmas has come to town.
*A different audience member will be asked to step in as Takagi at each evening’s performance.
Theatre Unleashed, The Belfry Stage, Upstairs at the Crown, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood.
December 5, 2015