(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance writer Wes Eichenwald.)
When the Holidays with a capital ‘H’ come around, so do certain staples of the stage, as inevitable as bluebonnets and SXSW in spring. We speak of the “Nutcrackers” and “Christmas Carols,” those reliable cash cows purpose-built to herd well-padded bottoms of all ages into theater seats. In the past two decades a decidedly minor-key, adult-oriented, dyspeptic addition to the canon has joined them, a corrective comment on the American way of Christmas: “The Santaland Diaries.”
The inextricable bond between Christmas and shopping, as if true holiday spirit can only be found in a major department store, is at the heart of “Diaries,” which made David Sedaris a household name – in households tuned in to NPR, anyway – after he wrote the original essay in 1992. The story, a semi-true account of how he was driven by job-seeker desperation to don the cap and bells as Crumpet the elf at Macy’s Santaland, was first staged in 1996.
But who needs Sedaris when we’ve got Martin Burke, who first played Crumpet at the Zach in 1998 and continued it annually for some 15 years (in 2012 he swore he was retiring the role; happily, it didn’t stick).
Burke has the jaundiced, self-hating misfit-elf schtick down cold, but helping him in no small measure to spice up this season’s holiday punch is his longtime friend Meredith McCall, the veteran Austin actress and singer who’s trod the Zach’s boards at least as much as her co-conspirator. Accompanied by stoic but up-for-anything pianist/musical director Jason Connor and (sometimes) Burke, the elegant McCall, resplendent in several shimmering ‘50s style dresses and gowns, set the foundation of a warm and laughter-filled evening with 45 minutes of cabaret, ranging from traditional Christmas songs with Austin-specific lyrics written by director Abe Reybold (plenty of traffic jokes; anyone who crawled forever down Mopac and Lamar to get to the show could relate) and topical takes (“Text Me Merry Christmas”) to lesser-known numbers like the delicious Brecht-Weill parody “Surabaya Santa” where a sardonic Mrs. Claus takes center stage at last. There are also some very silly and very non-PC bits of business.
It’s clear to even casual observers that Burke was born to play the hapless elf subjected to one humiliation after another in Santaland. The actor is possessed of a huge head with swept-back pompadour, set on a compact torso that never stops moving, suggesting a living caricature of himself or an occasionally profane wind-up doll. The Whisenhunt Stage, an intimate round bandbox of a theater, almost ensures the audience is part of the show, proven by Burke’s frequent comic interactions with some of them (good sports, all); at one point, he had us all rise from our seats to do the Wave.
The interplay and physical comedy between Burke and McCall was priceless; as one bit of Burkian stage business led to another – this is likely the only show with spot-on impressions of Miley Cyrus and Billie Holiday – she played the role of tolerant but patronizing straight woman to perfection. (For those with long memories, she pretty much channeled Keely Smith during the Louis Prima era.) This held true during the “Diaries” itself, as McCall moved into the role of Santaland hostess/elf dominatrix, where her chemistry with Burke allowed for tons of looseness and ad-libbing. If the show makes it safe for us to laugh at what we do to ourselves every December, sanity peeks through at the end, hope and love triumphing (if briefly) over cynicism, echoing McCall’s standout rendition of David Friedman’s touching, wise “The Truth About Christmas” in the cabaret segment.
This edition of “Santaland” is something special: rather than a one-man show, it’s a real three-person effort. Burke, McCall and Connor have created something all too rare in this town, an Austin approximation of a New York-style piano-bar cabaret with a holiday slant. It’s all about kindred spirits having fun, showing off, and in doing a little soul-baring, getting under the audience’s collective skin. Those attending the festivities knew they were among friends – no, among family – and they were home.
“The Santaland Diaries” contains through Dec, 27 at the Whisenhunt Stage at Zach Theatre, $59 zachtheatre.org