The white-bearded Fat Man In Red has been candy-caned to death and it’s up to the audience to decide who amongst five iconic Christmas characters “dunit” in Neil Haven’s Avenue Q-inspired, R-rated Who Killed Santa?, a Milwaukee perennial since 2008 now making its West Coast debut at Theatre 68, and while those who insist upon sophistication, refinement, and wit may want to look elsewhere for their holiday entertainment, Haven’s cult smash does what it sets out to do. It makes you laugh.
Taking its inspiration from 2004’s Tony-winning Best Musical (if not that show’s polish), Who Killed Santa? has most of its roles shared by actor and puppet, and what an eclectic cast of characters it features—Frosty The Snowman, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, Tiny Tim, Little Drummer Boy Steve, and North Pole newbie Chastity aka The Little Drummer Girl—each of whom might have wanted to bump off the foul-mouthed child-molester we call Jolly Old St. Nick.
Santa (Thomas F. Evans, the only actor playing life-sized characters throughout) sets the evening’s raunchy tone with a show-opening takeoff on “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” (“I saw Santa take off Mommy’s clothes. It felt so wrong, and then it felt so right.”) and things don’t get any more refined as one by one we meet the guests assembled for this year’s annual Christmas Eve party.
Frosty (Jonathan Berenson aided by right-hand man Peter Osterweil) is a slow-witted palooka of a snowman who appreciates it not one bit when Santa asks him of all frozen creatures to “go pull the cookies out of the oven.”
Gimpy Tiny Tim (Katie Zeiner) would give Charles Dickens a heart attack with his complaints of “freezing me retarded legs off out here” in winter weather “colder than Frosty’s arse.”
A perennially sloshed Rudolph (Marissa Fennell) ignores Santa’s hungry-eyed greeting (“We got venison!”) to slur out a “Where’s the booze? My nose is goin’ back to normal.”
Then there’s heavy metal-haired Steve (Jotapé Lockwood), who’s feeling “pretty good” after his audition for Mannheim Steam Roller, that is until he meets Santa’s fifth and final guest.
And that would be Chastity (Rebecca Rose Phillips), looking the furthest thing from chaste in her cleavage-revealing holiday-green bra-top. (Fortunately for Mr. Claus, the Missus is wintering at a Buddhist retreat in India.)
It doesn’t take long for these beloved Christmas characters (and Chastity) to reveal their reasons for hating Santa, not only the most horrible of horrible bosses but a drunken letch to boot.
Steve fears being replaced by “Chesty-titty” now that Santa has declared it “time to get some girl characters.” Frosty is sick and tired of St. Nick treating him like an idiot … and refusing to turn down the heat. The Red-Nosed Reindeer likes it not one bit when Santa declares that “gayness is the least of Rudolph’s problems,” nor is Tim pleased by the suggestion that he’s called Tiny because down there he’s no bigger than his pinky. And heaven only knows how Chastity feels about being felt up by Santa’s claws.
It’s therefore not all that surprising when Santa staggers into the room, a candy cane protruding from his back, then drops dead to the floor surrounded by five equally likely suspects with only a police detective (and the audience) to figure out who the killer is.
Though definitely not for prudes or theater elitists, Who Killed Santa? provides an enjoyable alternative to standard holiday fare for those who don’t mind their humor rude, crude, and occasionally sophomoric, though raunch isn’t the only reason to recommend the latest from Theatre 68.
One of Who Killed Santa?’s funnest conceits is having its audience stand in for Santa’s elves, left outside in the cold to gaze in through frosted-up windows at tonight’s festivities, singing protest songs (“Santa’s A Jerk” to the tune of “Silent Night” and “The Five Hours Of Overtime” to “The Twelve Days Of Christmas”) and waving protest signs (conveniently printed in on the backs of our programs).
These two “Protest Carols” aren’t the only songs given new lyrics. Others include “Good King Wenceslas,” “Here Comes Santa Claus, and “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” with special snaps to the five-part harmonies of a gorgeous “Carol Of The Bells” takeoff, retitled “Santa Is Dead.” (“Santa is dead. Blood has been shed. Evil at work. Someone’s a jerk.”)
Performances under Ronnie Marmo’s direction may be short on nuance, but they are long on entertainment value.
As in Avenue Q, much of the pleasure in Who Killed Santa? is in seeing roles shared between live actors and inanimate objects. Steve, for instance, is not just a mop-headed puppet but also triple-threat Lockwood, whose facial expressions mirror Steve’s words, and whose actions (head-banging the wall) match as well. Tiny Tim may be carrying a mini-cane, but it is Zeiner who’s limping. Fennell plays the sexually ambiguous Rudolph with a head cold. And in the evening’s best matchup, redhead Phillips (who originated the role of Tiny time in Who Killed Santa?’s Milwaukee World Premiere) is the spitting image of Chastity, though like all the puppet-manipulators, she herself is clad in black t-shirt and pants.
Most memorable of all are the joined-at-the-hip duo of Berenson and Osterweil, and though it is the former who gives voice to the loveable lug that is Frosty, it is the latter who quite literally serves as Frosty’s right hand, Yang to Berenson’s Ying.
Last but not least is good-sport Evans, who not only has a field day playing Santa in dirty old man mode but gets to be a hard-edged private dick, a plus-sized pink-tutued Tooth Fairy, and a sari-clad Mrs. Claus to boot.
Oh, and you haven’t lived till you’ve seen Chastity give Tiny Tim a c-job.
Who Killed Santa? looks terrific on scenic designer Danny Cistone’s nicely detailed Santa’s lair set. MJ Scott’s costumes, Paul McGee’s lighting, Haven’s sound design, and Emily Juliani’s props are all topnotch.
Avenue Q vet Libby Letlow is puppetry coach and puppet builder, designs based on Dan Katula’s Milwaukee originals. Heidi Rhodes is assistant director.
Christmas 2015 may already be but a memory, but with another two weekends of Who Killed Santa? remaining (and 99% of L.A.’s 99-seat theaters dark for the holidays), there’s still time to catch this year’s naughtiest Christmas comedy. I give Who Killed Santa? a HO!
December 23, 2105
Photos: Marissa Fennell