‘It’s a Wonderful Christmas Carol Life’

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Michael Ensminger

The Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company (BETC) is on a roll. In addition to continuing a remarkable run of top notch productions that cement BETC’s reputation as one of the best theatre companies in not just Boulder but all of Colorado, over the past year BETC has collected some serious national accolades.

BETC won the National Theatre Company Award from the American Theatre Wing, founder of the Tony Awards. The National New Play Network selected Stephanie Alison Walker’s The Madres, which sprang from BETC’s new play development project, for presentation at its national conference. Most recently, BETC’s Managing Director and Artistic Ensemble member, Rebecca Remaly, received the National Theatre Conference’s Emerging Professional Award.

Never one to rest on its laurels, BETC’s latest ambition appears to be cornering the market on Christmas. BETC’s annual production of The SantaLand Diaries, David Sedaris’ cynicimental recounting of working as an elf at Macy’s during the holidays, has become a holiday tradition for many Boulder theater lovers. Now being presented at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts in partnership with Denver Center Attractions, BETC’s SantaLand has expanded its drawing power to the entire metro area.

This year, while SantaLand slays ’em at the Denver Center, BETC has launched another holiday humdinger in Boulder with the regional premier of Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and then some)! As the name suggests, Every Christmas Story Ever Told is a medley-style, whirlwind tour of the most well-known and much-loved holiday movies, TV shows, songs and traditions from around the globe. Think of it as The Compleat Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) with Santa standing in for the Bard.

Three actors (Jon Fortmiller, Daniel Langhoff and Justin Walvoord) are set to perform Charles Dickens’ seminal story of 11th-hour redemption, A Christmas Carol. Justin is over the moon to be playing Scrooge in this Christmas classic. Daniel and Jon, however, do not share his enthusiasm. They feel like A Christmas Carol is played out, and they want to scrap it in favor of something more modern. The three ultimately compromise on performing a Frankincense’s monster of holiday fare, a mistletoe mashup, if you will. And with a Bruce Buffer style, “Let’s get ready to jingle!” they’re off and running.

Although Hanukkah and Kwanzaa are namechecked early on and other holiday traditions from Europe to Easter Island are mentioned throughout the play, make no mistake that Every Christmas Story Ever Told is a decidedly Christian-centric affair. Using quick costume changes and a breakneck pace, Fortmiller, Langhoff and Walvoord bring dozens of characters to life as they tell Xmas tale after Xmas tale, often embellishing them with modern pop culture references.

The list of BHC’s (beloved holiday classics) the boys tick off starts with The Grinch. Thankfully, their mini-Grinch is informed by the Boris Karloff narrated 1966 television version rather than the 2000 film starring Jim Carrey. The Grinch gives way to a retelling of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer who, due to copyright infringement concerns, becomes Gustav the Green-Nosed Raingoat.

There’s a frisson of Frosty, a very literal interpretation of The Nutcracker featuring more groin shots than a whole season of America’s Funniest Home Videos and even a laugh-out-loud bit about Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales that, due to one cast member mis-hearing another, becomes Bob Dylan reciting A Child’s Christmas with Whales.

While the first act of Every Christmas Story Ever Told feels a bit scattershot, the second act gels nicely. Instead of a new story or sketch every few minutes, the post-intermission part of the play finds Walvoord finally getting to put on A Christmas Carol. Fortmiller and Langhoff still aren’t sold on Dickens, so they keep interjecting characters and scenes from It’s a Wonderful Life until they’ve unwittingly created a new Christmas story, It’s a Wonderful Christmas Carol Life.

In light of how seamless and well-integrated the second act is when compared to the rather herky-jerky first act, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that playwrights Michael Carleton, James FitzGerald and John K. Alvarez began with the notion of A Christmas Carol meets It’s a Wonderful Life, realized they couldn’t squeeze 90-plus minutes out of it and ended up with the Every Christmas Story Ever Told conceit to fill time.

Whatever its genesis, Every Christmas Story Ever Told is an enjoyably entertaining holiday romp with room to grow, and BETC’s cast and crew tie the production up with a big red bow.

On the Bill: Every Christmas Story Ever Told — presented by BETC. The Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder, betc.org. Through Dec. 24.