By Jane Recker
Barney the Elf opens like most typical holiday tales. The lights dim on the gift-wrapped, Christmas-tastic set, and a mellifluous voice speaks in warm, honeyed tones in the darkness about the wonders of the North Pole. The saccharine scene is cut short by the same voice backtracking, saying, “I realize some of you might not know what I’m talking about. There might be Jews in the audience!”
Other Theatre’s production of the Elf spoof takes every Christmas cliché and turns it on its head. The combination of uproarious musical numbers, a snappy book, killer comedic timing and a healthy dose of spandex makes Barney the Elf the naughty holiday treat many adults have been waiting for.
The story opens to a new regime in the North Pole: Santa has recently passed away, and his son, Junior – a homophobic, Trumpian tyrant – is the new head of Christmas production. Barney is the most spirited little Christmas cherub working at the factory, but is exiled to Chicago by Junior when it’s revealed that Barney is gay. While in Chicago, Barney gets a job as a janitor at a gay bar, and meets drag queen Zooey, who teaches him that it’s okay to be different. The two fall in love, and Barney, empowered by his newfound self-acceptance, ends up saving Christmas and shows Junior that diversity isn’t so bad after all.
Clearly this isn’t your typically pastoral Christmas comedy. However, even though it’s a wild plot dripping with glitter and satire, it never feels over the top. This is thanks to Bryan Renaud’s intelligent book that weaves mockery and genuine sentiment seamlessly together. The show manages to make fun of the innocent nature of many holiday shows while still recognizing the merit of them. While the cast of characters is raucous, biting and even at a times a little perverse, there are moments like Barney’s rendition of O Holy Night in a gay bar, or the finale with Barney and Zooey running a magical Christmas together at the North Pole that, although unexpected and comedic, are genuinely heartwarming and in the spirit of the season.
The true fun of this show lies in its musical numbers from Jermaine Hill, Bryan Renaud and Emily Schmidt. Parody pieces set to the melodies of famous pop songs or beloved show tunes, every number is a crowd-pleaser that has the audience in uproarious laughter. While Barney’s gay revelation in the form of Boner (set to the tune of Wicked‘s “Loathing”) and a scathing rendition of Fuck You from a fiery Mrs. Claus are incredible numbers, none are as much a showstopper as Junior’s proposal to Embrace the Straight (set to “I Will Survive”). Complete with gold lamé spandex, shirtless backup dancers and a non-replicable amount of splits, the number is received with wild applause and warranted skepticism to Junior’s own sexuality.
This saucy comedy wouldn’t be possible without an all-star cast. Roy Samra handles the title role well with an adorable, genuinely sweet, innocently flaming Barney. Dixie Lynn Cartwright is a favorite in the form of the raunchy yet smartly funny Zooey, and Jaron Bellar has an impressive turn as the petulant Junior, complete with some killer dance moves. It’s Maggie Cain as Mrs. Claus that steals the show, though. Her comedic timing is impeccable, whipping out one-liners with a dryness that comes only from years of practice and a natural gift. Her scathing humor is made even more hilarious by the delivery: with her modest cardigan and skirt and humble tone, one doesn’t exactly expect Mrs. Claus to offer a witty view on the American political system.
It’s with jokes like those that Barney really hits the target. As a show that deals with homophobia and acceptance of diversity, it would be remiss to not incorporate humor relating to our current mess of prejudice. However, these jokes are tastefully placed and used sparingly. Where so many other shows go for quantity over quality, Renaud seems to understand the power of restraint in such humor: each joke packs more of a punch than they would were the piece saturated with similar laughs.
Barney the Elf is an enjoyable show for all mature audiences, be they on the naughty or nice list this Christmas. Though the shamelessly raunchy humor keeps the audience in stitches, they still leave the theater with that especially Christmas-y feeling of hope and love.
Other Theatre presents “Barney the Elf”at Greenhouse Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, through December 30. More information and tickets may be found here.