Last year, as has been his annual custom, Roy Steinberg, the producing artistic director of Cape May Stage theater company, began looking for shows to present the following season.
The process followed the usual path. Steinberg started reading scripts, literally hundreds of them. Booking for the entire season was important, naturally, but one of his goals was finding something a little out of the ordinary for the holidays.
Eventually he came across a show that had him laughing from the first page of the script to the last. He immediately knew he’d found the show. There was just one catch. It was quite different from the usual repertoire of holiday productions the Actors’ Equity company produces each year.
Instead of a show with a cast of carolers, actors and the usual holiday elements, this play was a slapstick comedy. Had it first been produced 70 years ago, the show — which has a cast of three — might have been a perfect holiday presentation for the Three Stooges.
If you’re looking for something a little more traditional for the holiday season, it probably isn’t “The Ultimate Christmas Show (Abridged),” which Cape May Stage will present on its main stage at The Robert Shackleford Playhouse Wednesday,Nov. 15 to Dec. 30.
However, if you’ve got a good sense of humor and would enjoy a change of pace, something slightly off the beaten path, then this is the show for you.
Steinberg, a veteran stage, television and motion picture director, is betting that people — at least this year — might be looking for something a little out of the ordinary from what most folks expect from the usual array of holiday shows.
“The moment I started reading (the script), I knew I’d found (this year’s) holiday show,” Steinberg says.
The premise of “The Ultimate Christmas Show (Abridged)” is pretty simple and adaptable enough that it can be localized.
So for the purposes of a Cape May production, consider the impact of a snow storm that has shut down the Garden State Parkway, just when a church — the Saint Everybody’s Non-Denominational Universalist Church — is ready to stage its annual holiday show.
The church is very progressive and apparently has a large membership with deep pockets, because it has booked major acts from around the world for its Christmas production.
You’ve probably heard of some of the artists. Let’s see, there’s the Cleveland Castrato Choir, the Confederate Christmas Carolers, Cirque du Sleigh and even actor Patrick Stewart’s One-Man Christmas Carol from London.
But the storm made it impossible for the acts to show up. So three local guys, imbued with the “show must go on” spirit, decide they’re going to do the show themselves and replicate every act in the program.
“They do everything from ‘The Nutcracker’ to Christmas carols to their version of English pantomime,” Steinberg says, laughing as he describes the plot. “And (the guys), they’re not very adept at what they’re doing, so it’s very funny.”
Over the years, Cape May Stage has presented virtually all of the holiday classics. This year, Steinberg says he was looking for something a little different.
“We’ve done ‘A Christmas Carol’ and every version of it, like Jacob Marley’s ‘Christmas Carol,’ we’ve done a one-man version of it, we’ve done everything under the sun,” he says. “We’ve done ‘It’s A Wonderful Life,’ always to great effect. We’ve even done children’s (holiday) plays, like ‘The Little Prince.’”
Steinberg wanted to try something different this year to show audiences a more comedic program celebrating the early winter holidays like Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanza.
“When I came across this story, I knew it was right for us,” he says. “It’s written by the guys who wrote ‘The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged),’ so it has that kind of improvisational feel. It’s silly, irreverent, politically incorrect and just plain hilarious.”
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The show also breaks the traditional rules of the theater. Not only will the three-man cast of New York actors — John Wilkening, Curt Foy and Matthew Hardy — go off-script and have opportunities to ad-lib, but they’ll also smash the invisible fourth wall that separates actors from audience.
Never mind talking to the audience — the cast will tear that wall to pieces by actually mixing with the crowd for some spontaneous interaction.
“There’s a part in the play where (the cast) goes into the audience and you can actually exchange presents with them,” Steinberg explains. “So the audience is encouraged to bring a little $5 present … and we do some humor around that, as well.”
Promotional material for the show includes a disclaimer about adult humor and the show being an “equal-opportunity offender.” But Steinberg is quick to add that there’s no foul language or nudity. He thinks kids 10 and older will understand the show.
“There’s nothing inappropriate for children,” he says. “We offend everyone from every political persuasion. But we do it with humor and great love in our hearts. And it’s not mean-spirited fun. It’s done with a smile and a wink.”