Ricky Cona and Heather Krueger star in New Stage Theatre’s production of “Holiday Party of One.”
LARGO - With daily temperatures reaching the mid-80s in the Tampa Bay area, getting into the Christmas spirit can be a challenge.
Fortunately, in addition to all the seasonal happenings around Pinellas, area theaters are serving up some merry shows to spark that yuletide glee. “Holiday Party of One,” written by Alison Burns, offers a fresh approach to holiday amusement with an innovative twist on a classic narrative and a delicious cabaret-style program of songs and parodies.
“Holiday Party of One” runs through Dec. 20 at New Stage Theatre, 11650 131st St. N., Largo. Performances are Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m.; and Sunday, 3 p.m. Tickets are $25.88. Call 813-817-2585 or visit newstagelargo.org.
Directed by Karla Hartley, “Holiday Party of One” begins with a modernized interpretation of the concepts explored in Frank Capra’s classic film “It’s a Wonderful Life” – only, instead of a woeful George Bailey contemplating suicide, the audience is introduced to three self-absorbed characters unwilling or unable to relate to one another in a civilized manner.
Gabe Saienni and Heather Krueger portray Brian and Julie, a couple in a strained marriage. Burns plays Nicole, Julie’s sister (not to mention Brian’s former girlfriend). With Christmas approaching, these three are about as emotionally distant from each other as they can be – and the task of fixing the familial dispute falls upon a wannabe angel, Holiday Magic. Ricky Cona fills the shoes of this tip-of-the-hat to Clarence Odbody.
These characters are instantly recognizable to any modern audience. Brian is materialistic, ambitious and insensitive. Julie is mocking, skeptical and perhaps a little insecure. Nicole is narcissistic, condescending and indignant. And yet, three quarters of the way through the act, the audience is rooting for them.
Saienni, Krueger and Burns all deliver solid performances, underscoring each character’s flaws without dehumanizing them.
Cona is equally effective as the peeved guardian angel, aggravated God is making him work on Christmas Eve. Cona’s character is part referee, part life coach and part artful dodger.
The first act also features plenty of musical parodies worked into the storyline, including Burns singing “Go Post it on My Facebook” (a la “Go Tell It on the Mountain”), one of the show’s most memorable songs.
Eventually, the set transforms into a Chinese restaurant in which the three characters are trapped. New Stage Theatre really shows off its resourcefulness here: The low-budget set is surprisingly convincing. Against this backdrop, Holiday Magic summons all his powers to heal the dysfunctional group and earn points toward achieving his wings.
After intermission, the group returns to perform a cabaret-style set of holiday songs, beginning with Cona’s Hanukkah tribute: He transforms Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” into “Eight Days of Fire.”
There is an abundance of witty exchanges throughout the second act, with Cona often tenderly marginalized by the others for comic effect. The ensemble dishes up plenty of parodies and clever adaptations, including a snarky take on “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and an intricate variation on “Twelve Days of Christmas” that incorporates a medley of seasonal songs and a melodic allusion to – of all things – Toto’s 1981 hit “Africa.”
The humorous numbers intermingle with a few sentimental favorites as well as some unconventional supplements to the set list, including Sara Bareilles’ “Love is Christmas.” The calculated progression is coherent and entertaining. Whether performing solo, as part of a duet or with the entire ensemble, Cona, Saienni, Krueger and Burns electrify the theater and make this two-act production stylish and enchanting.
New Stage Theatre’s “Holiday Party for One” is irreverent without being provocative, filled with amusing takeoffs of Christmastime standards as well as sincere seasonal sentiment. The show’s four performers convey a palpable enthusiasm for entertaining audiences and display an obvious joy for working together on stage. This fun holiday romp may target Gen Xers but its contemporary sensibilities, quirky storytelling and unconventional humor will undoubtedly appeal to a much wider audience.