The Troubadour Theater Company is back at the Falcon Theatre for their once-a-year Christmas fun fest, a reprise of the smash 2004 hit Santa Claus Is Coming To Motown, and though I only counted two actual Motown songs (plus a brief medley) amongst Santa’s dozen or more R&B/soul hits, the Troubies’ latest annual year-end offering remains a hilarious holiday treat.
Fans of the 1970 stop-motion classic Santa Claus Is Coming To Town will delight at recognizing characters they’ve known and loved for the past forty-five years.
There’s mailman SD (short for Special Delivery), redubbed STD by the Troubles and played by master ad-libber Rick Batalla. (To children who might not want to gather round for Santa’s tale he offers a reassuring “Come on, I’m not a pitchman for Subway.”)
As in the TV special of decades past, Santa Claus Is Coming To Motown takes us back a long, long time ago “when Caitlyn was still Bruce” to the German village known as Sombertown, ruled with an iron Teutonic fist by Burgermeister Meisterburger and populated with the gloomiest of townsfolk.
Of course, since this is the Troubies, not all is as it was in the world of Claymation. Kris Kringle’s adopted family the Kringles now have a less-than-fair daughter named Singles Kringle, the beautiful Jessica (the future Mrs. Claus) now earns extra cash teaching jujitsu, and Winter Warlock continues to impress Falcon audiences with his chopstick finger tricks.
And since no Troubies show would be a Troubies show without music, key moments from the TV special provide one song cue after another.
The Kringles teach Kris it’s as easy to make toys as “A.B.C.” Kris gets himself a new outfit so that folks will treat him with “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” The Burgermeister is so mean (“I hate toys and toys hate me”) that he’s a “Soulless Man.” When Kris meets the future Mrs. Claus, he asks himself the musical question, “Who’s That Lady?” And “Sex Machine” is retitled “Toy Machine” since this is Santa’s tale after all.
Other classic 1960s/70s R&B/soul hits that get fit into Santa Claus Is Coming To Motown include “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “I Feel Good,” “When A Man Loves A Woman,” “Chain Of Fools,” “It’s Your Thing,” and “Higher And Higher.”
Trouble is, only “A.B.C” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” are actual Berry Gordy/Motown hits. Neither Aretha Franklin nor James Brown nor Sam & Dave recorded for Motown, and as for those Stax Records singles and the ones recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama for Atlantic Records, as any true Motown fan can tell you, these labels’ sounds are as distinctive from that of the Motor City as Beethoven is from Mozart.
Still, with the Troubies performing at the peak of their triple-threat talents under Matt Walker’s expert direction, Santa Claus Is Coming To Motown ends up a non-stop musical comedy delight, even for folks like this reviewer who’ve never seen the Claymation original.
Troubies treasure Batalla once again proves himself a master comedian/ad-libber, Beth Kennedy steals scenes right and left as Bunny, as Shingles, and as her trademark Winter Warlock, without whom it wouldn’t be a Troubies Christmas. And head honcho Walker is in a class by himself as Kris.
Supporting performers don’t get more triple-threatastic than Joey Keane, Andy Lopez, Suzanne Jolie Narbonne, Darrin Revitz, Mike Sulprezio, and Lisa Valenzuela, each of whom executes so many different characters (and costume changes) that it would be nigh-on impossible to list them all, and swing Leah Sprecher added to the Opening Night pleasures as backup singer Trixie, whose latest album is appropriately entitled Doin’ It From Behind.
Narbonne recreates Nadine Ellis’ original choreography to perfection, guaranteeing one exciting, energetic production number after another, backed by musical director Eric Heinly’s sensational live onstage band.
Sharon McGunigle’s supremely imaginative costumes pay tribute to the TV originals while adding distinctive Troubies touches. Jeremy Pivnick lights McGunigle’s costumes, Christopher Scott Murillo’s storybook set, and Corey Womack’s clever props to perfection. Robert Arturo Ramirez’s sound design provides a just-right mix of vocals and instrumentals, plus some fun effects along the way.
Claire Mazzeo is stage manager. Mike Jespersen is technical director. Tyler King is assistant director and male swing.
Like Troubies holiday spoofs before it (Frosty the Snowmanilow, The First Jo-el, A Christmas West Side Story, etc.), Santa Claus Is Coming To Motown provides infectiously crowd-pleasing PG-13 Christmas entertainment. Just don’t expect too much Motown this time round.
Troubadour Theatre Company, Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank.
December 11, 2105
Photos: Jill Mamey