Stop-Motion Christmas Specials Get Soulful in Santa Claus Is Comin' to Motown
Leah Sprecher, Suzanne Jolie Narbonne, Darrin Revitz and Lisa Valenzuela in the creditable Santa Claus is Comin' to Motown
Photo by Jill Mamey
For 20 years, the folks of Troubadour Theater Company have reigned as L.A.’s undisputed masters of musical-mashup satire. Their comedy is rooted in the puerile pun and the incongruities implicit in grafting an inappropriate score of lyrically tweaked top-40 hits to either a Shakespearean classic (Fleetwood Macbeth) or, around this time of year, a not-so-memorable piece of vintage Yuletide TV treacle (Frosty the Snow Manilow).
What passes for a story (about the origin of St. Nick) in Santa Claus is Comin’ to Motown, the Troubies’ revival of their 2004, purposeful mismatch of a remarkably insipid, 1970 stop-motion TV feature with a dozen iconic gems of 1960s Detroit soul, is almost beside the point. Fans flock to see company stars like Rick Batalla (as a sardonic postman-narrator), Beth Kennedy (in a reprisal of her stilt-walking Winter Warlock caricature) and director-emcee Matt Walker (Kris Kringle) go through their ad-libbed paces. They don't disappoint.
And there are even several moments when the proceedings come tantalizingly close to realizing the inspired race satire implicit in pairing a lily-white comedy troupe with an African-American sound so closely identified with its decade’s civil rights struggle. Yet despite the occasional comedy coup, like renaming the equally fair-skinned Troubadour musicians “The Less-Than-Average White Band,” and notwithstanding several allusions to the lightness of color tossed off by the tag team of Walker and Batalla or through Nadine Ellis’ winking choreography, the expected gut-busting winter WASP spoof never materializes.
Instead, what happens in between the silly volleys of quick-fire wordplay, edgy double entendre and the group’s trademark — and famously merciless — hazing of hapless audience latecomers may be just as satisfying. That’s when musical director Eric Heinly flexes the band’s precision Motown muscle. And powered by lampoon-resistant showstoppers like the Jackson 5’s “ABC” or the Aretha Franklin standard “Respect” (and the searing pipes of powerhouse vocalist Lisa Valenzuela), the show soars as a surprisingly creditable and refreshingly jingle-free Christmas tribute concert.
GO! Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank; through Jan. 17. (818) 955-8101, falcontheatre.com.
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