By Liz Christensen
Desert Star’s Christmas Vacation: The Polarized Express, playing this season in Murray, is a revamp of a previous holiday script by Ben Millet made more relevant by referencing this week’s headlines, national conversations, and current Utah-isms. A few jokes are decidedly edgy but nothing offensive. Head Elf Keelber played by Andrew Nadon, (alt. Lee Daily,) wants to steal the source of all of Santa’s magic. With sidekicks Elphaba (Valerie Packer, alt. Melissa Cecala,) and Frostbite (Sara McDonald, alt. Lindsey Rochelle,) as witless and desperate accomplices, Keebler embarks on his selfish and ambitious villainy. Coming to Santa’s aid are sugary sweet eight-year-old Audrey (Jessica Yergensen, alt. Chelsea Grant Hubbard,) and her work-centric father Ronald (Rick Miller, alt. Richie T. Steadman.) All other characters are divvied up between ensemble members Carli Evans, (alt. Natalia Noble and Brittany Shamy,) and Miles Broadhead, (alt. Todd Michael Thompson,) who bring quirky verve and nimble comedy to each role they assume. Every time Evans was onstage as the elf Trixie, she commanded my attention with her performance. Broadhead’s portrayal of Theodore must be taxing, but he never falters. In quintessential Desert Star fashion, every character gets their just desserts in the end, romance blossoms, Christmas is saved, and a sweet moral lesson emerges from all the quick-witted silliness.
Music Direction from Ben Mayfield brings a variety of songs, some familiar, some less so, and a variety of capable singers to basically the same jazzy, playful standard, though there are some standouts and some mismatches. Act One solo “Santa Suit,” was too low for Nadon, who excels in a higher register. McDonald’s solo in Act One was the perfect amalgam of vocal talent, song selection, and lyric writing. Act Two’s number “Second from the Top” was a highlight for relevant and snappy jokes all over the lyrics.
A large part of the show’s pacing and atmosphere is directly tied to the accompanist Catie Omer (alt. David Slack and Ben Mayfield.) Omer keeps a constant underscore with sensitivity, precision, and excellence. She peppily Emcees the preshow audience orientation and sing-along. The packed house included few first-timers, but even if you’ve never been, with Omer’s cheerful and concise tutoring, you’ll catch on quick.
Direction by Scott Holman puts a smoothness on the quick-paced show that makes the comedy seem effortless. The opening number “Merry Old Land of Elves” is bouncy and cheerful, setting a tone and momentum for the show that never drops. A smorgasbord of parody populates the show with references that hit on all bases. The keen cast breaks the fourth wall without stalling the show, though sometimes that speed is hasty enough to undercut the comedic delivery of a bit or punchline. Scenes and scene changes clip along, occasionally with a scene ending so abruptly that the audience is uncertain whether to clap. Daniel Akin’s portrayal of Santa, (alt. Matt O’Malley,) didn’t capture the classical Santa. His energy erupts as he rocks his Act Two number on the train. I loved it so much it ended too quickly for me. Miller is consistently energetic and animated, but I particularly loved his well-placed asides, audience banter, and ad-libs.
Generally, the drops and sets are colorful and glitzy, detailed and fun. Costume design by Lynn Funk, Corinne Adair, and Lee Daily combined dissimilar textures and colors into unique wardrobes for each character that boldly synthesize as an ensemble. The lighting really promoted the more spirited musical numbers. My eight-year-old daughter loudly proclaimed, “That was so cool,” when an old standby trick was convincingly employed to make a snowman melt. There were a couple technical glitches with letters and a vacuum sound effect, but the actors moved right along. The sound was seamless, and I could hear actors clearly throughout the show
Desert Star is a dinner theatre with a menu that hovers somewhere between fast-food and restaurant quality choices. The servers are friendly, prompt and attentive without being obtrusive. While servers settle bills, audience member birthdays, anniversaries, out-of-towners and large groups are celebrated and good-naturedly skewered by a member of the cast. There are two intermissions, with a musical revue Olio following the concluding act of the story.
“The Ho-Ho-Ho Olio,” features lesser-known Christmas music choices that were lovely, lively and incorporated beautiful harmonies. Just in case you were expecting the old standbys, Omer really displays her prowess on the keys when she plays a mashup of virtually every famous Christmas song you may have missed. The cast brandishes their singing with the Olio opener in gorgeous blends. The ladies have a musical number of their own that showcases some dynamite harmonies. The audience joined in a Christmas sing-along while the cast gave out candy canes to all the kids. There is a parody of a commercial about polygamy that nearly brought the house down with laughter, as well as two other hilarious pieces I won’t spoil for you. A slideshow brought the Olio back around to a satisfying sentimentality. The last number of the Olio doesn’t raise the roof, but don’t miss the third act of the Desert Star experience. Some of the sweetest music and most hilarious barbs are reserved for this final stretch.
The sumptuous lobby and house decorations add to the festive atmosphere. The complimentary popcorn is tasty. But the real reason to see this holiday show is the uninterrupted flow of story and satire, presented with a playful polish that shows hard work without taking itself too seriously. With jokes as topical and witty as those you’d find on late night tv, and colorful characters, costumes, sets and lights throughout, Desert Star’s Christmas Vacation: The Polarized Express is a holly, jolly joy.
Desert Star’s Christmas Vacation: The Polarized Express by Ben Millet, Scott Holman and Ben Mayfield Desert Star Playhouse, 4861 S. State Street, Murray
November 9th thru December 30th, Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays at 6:00 PM, Thursdays at 6:00 PM and 8:00 PM, and Fridays and Saturdays at 11:30 AM, 2:30 PM, 6:00 PM, 8:30 PM
Tickets: Children 11 and under $14.95 – $18.95, Adults $28.95
Box Office 801-266-2600
Desert Star Website
Desert Star on Facebook
Facebook event for ASL night at Christmas Vacation