By Josh Flanders
These days with nostalgia on the rise, escapism is the norm, and nearly everything from the 1980s is getting a musical treatment—from Golden Girls to 90210 (with some key exceptions…Kids from Fame anyone?).
So, it’s no surprise that MCL Chicago should revive, now in its fourth year, its perennial holiday musical hit Yippee Ki-Yay Merry Christmas: A Die Hard Christmas Musical, written by Michael Shepherd Jordan and directed by Alex Garday.
Yippee Ki-Yay Merry Christmas reimagines the 1980s-classic film through the lens of Millennials looking back on a time they learned about through popular culture but never experienced firsthand. And like a Buzzfeed top 20 list, it is a best-of survey sprinkled with scores of various 80s references (“whatchu talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?), and many 90s references (remember Tamagotchis?), as well as a few callouts to modern culture (including a RuPaul’s Drag Race reference from four years ago, which dates this show).
Die Hard is the new It’s a Wonderful Life in that it gets played ad nauseum during the holidays, so if one has seen Die Hard more than a handful of times, like most of the audience, they will enjoy Yippee Ki-Yay Merry Christmas. (However, if one is unfamiliar with the source material, much of the inside jokes and nuance may be lost.)
The musical follows the plot of the film, introducing all the characters we know and love, yet their names have been changed which makes it that much more confusing to follow. (One would assume it was meant to protect themselves from legal action, but parody is protected by the law, so this just adds to the confusion.) The main character from the film, John McClane, is named Bruce McClane in the musical, while the coke-sniffing comic relief character from the film, Harry Ellis, is named Willis (get it? Bruce and Willis?). Other characters get similarly silly names like the evil Hans Gruber who is known in the musical as Hans Solo (a 70s reference to Star Wars) or Holly Gennaro who goes by Holly Generic in the musical.
For the most part, this cast fully commits and maintains a high energy for the whole show. The musical opens (and closes) with “California Christmas,” a fun song introducing the characters, which leads into a hilarious number called “Lady of the 80s” led by Holly Generic (an electrifying Alex Richmond) with great 80s choreography by Laura Marsh. Unfortunately, the rest of the choreography seems somewhat disjointed and scattered, possibly because many of the songs are not character-driven but character descriptions, and do not work to express the desires of these characters. But let’s face it; no one is here to learn about their character arcs. The dance numbers include various dance styles, including tap, which for some reason shows up inexplicably in this (and almost every) musical show, as if to say, “we studied tap in school, so let’s put in a tap number” with no real reason for it.
One particular song, a “lady list song” of sorts, rattles off names of women while two women hold up and drop 8×10 photos of famous women. This song is a perfect metaphor for the musical as a whole, a 20-somethings’ list of popular references in no particular order. The music as a whole includes lots of 80s references like Cyndi Lauper, but also songs like the theme to Jurassic Park (90s), Game of Thrones, and some Christmas classics. The SWAT team entering to the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” is especially silly fun.
Gary Fields carries the show and is wonderfully spot-on as the evil but impeccably-dressed, fashion-obsessed Hans Solo, reminiscent of the late, great Alan Rickman who immortalized this role in the film. Fields has a wonderful, clear voice and gets some great songs, like the show-stopper “Let’s Talk About our Outfits” which turns into a fashion show. Fields never lets up with his Hans character, an impressive feat, even throughout singing and dancing. Michael Shepherd Jordan plays the coked-out Willis with infectious, joyous abandon, an audience favorite, and Damian Jason White plays Carl Winslow, the cop, with the perfect balance of silliness and sincerity, like he just stepped out of the film itself. Ashley Geron plays Dwayne T. Robinson with a silly deadpan approach that makes the audience erupt in laughter, and Erin Long is extremely funny, physical and energetic as Karl, the ill-fated blond sidekick of Hans.
Sadly, these supporting characters outshine the main character of Bruce McLane (Alan Metoskie) who is a little too chill in this role. Metoskie’s performance would be more impactful if he projected more and committed to his songs. His first number, “I’m a Cowboy” comes too soon in the musical, before his character is established, and for much of the musical he is stage right on the stairs, a problem for MCL crowds who need to see around two pillars on stage.
The most uncomfortable moment comes during FBI agent Johnson’s song (Seth Origitano), which is essentially angry yelling, coupled with Origitano going into the audience and yell/singing angrily into people’s uneasy faces. This character never earns his anger. This is not funny or enjoyable, especially when his over-the-top performance culminates in him using a toy helicopter to essentially sexually assault Metoskie while he is singing, repeatedly placing the helicopter directly on his crotch. If the audience cannot tell the difference between an actor who is faking discomfort or actually uncomfortable, then it ceases to be funny. Especially in this age of #MeToo, a director needs to think before they stage anything that even jokingly resembles a sexual assault. That kind of humor is best left in the 80s.
Overall, Yippee Ki-Yay Merry Christmas suffers from not enough story, which would add some breathing room between the songs which come one after another, often with no set up. The first two-thirds of this musical are well-paced and enjoyable, but the last third feels like it is simply rehashing the plot, like when trio of Fields, Metoskie and Long sing “Blow the Roof,” they are pushing to wrap things up, which happens with little pomp or circumstance, and a forgettable reunion of the main couple at the end. Yet there are enough funny jokes, witty repartee and media references to keep the mostly 20-something audiences laughing and nodding as they acknowledge their own understanding of a decade they only ever experienced through popular culture.
MCL Chicago presents “Yippee Ki-Yay Merry Christmas: A Die Hard Christmas Musical” at MCL Chicago, 3110 N. Sheffield Avenue, Chicago, through January 13, 2018. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Heather Scholl Photography.