By Erin Fleming
One might think that the first holiday show attempted by a theater with “candy” in its name might err on the side of being too syrupy sweet, but Kokandy Productions comes right out of the gate with a wonderful show that, while full of joy and cheer, contains enough savory contemplation to keep it from veering into sentimentality.
A Kokandy Christmas is a delightful party mix of a revue—part loungey cabaret, part homage to the great Christmas television variety specials of the ’70s and ’80s—which succeeds through its commitment to simplicity. An ensemble of five singers and three musicians share Christmas memories and perform new arrangements of new and old holiday favorites. Simple.
And while simple is hardly easy, (ask any actor how challenging it is to just “be yourself”) the talents of this cast make it seem effortless. The intimate space at Theatre Wit allows them to connect instantly with the audience, telling funny and touching stories about their own family and traditions in between musical numbers—the kind of stories that remind us what we all have in common.
The most poignant of these might be Emily Grayson’s melancholy memory of her first Christmas following a declined marriage proposal—it begins with her gleeful announcement “I’m a nice Jewish girl in a Christmas show!” and ends with a stirring rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “River.”
Music Director Aaron Benham and co-creator Michael Potsic have chosen an eclectic mix of Christmas songs—some traditional carols, some contemporary hits and a handful of lesser known tunes. The magic comes with how they have matched the songs and tailored the arrangements perfectly for the individual performers. Solo highlights include Jaymes Osbourne’s soulfully reverent “Oh, Holy Night,” Christina Hall’s lilting “Tennessee Christmas”/”White Christmas” mash-up and Garrett Lutz accompanying himself on ukulele for “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” Sasha Smith is adorable throughout, but most when she serenades Lutz with “All I Want For Christmas Is You.”
The chemistry among the ensemble is evident in their gorgeous harmonies and group dance numbers where they are Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time. There are fun surprises, such as playing Christmas Password, an unconventional instrumental version of “The Little Drummer Boy,” featuring drummer Scott Simon and an audience sing-along to “Silent Night” paired with the partner carol “Peace, Peace.”
The production team of Brandon Wardell (lighting design), Michael J. Patrick (sound design), Johnny Buranosky (props design) and Kait Samuels (stage manager) artfully avoid gilding the lily and serve up a simple, festive atmosphere that comes across as if the cast has invited us over for an impromptu holiday kiki around the piano. Running at at hour and fifteen minutes with no intermission, patrons will have time to enjoy some eggnog and mingle with the cast before heading home.
With its mix of bittersweet stories and songs, well-balanced and paced by Director Postic and Co-Artistic Director Allison Hendrix, A Kokandy Christmas is a treat guaranteed to nudge the Scroogiest bah-humbugger into a festive mood. Here’s hoping they make it a holiday tradition.
“A Kokandy Christmas” will play through December 23 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. More information and tickets are available by calling (773) 975-8150 or online here.