With a merry ho-ho-ho at the Garden Theatre comes "A Christmas Survival Guide," bubbling over with cheer and goodwill.
The holiday revue, by James Hindman and Ray Roderick, is produced by the Garden Theatre, which has several large-scale community-theater shows under its belt. "A Christmas Survival Guide," however, is a different sort of production, with just a quintet of performers.
The five have resumes filled with credits from Walt Disney World and Central Florida's best-known professional theaters — Mad Cow Theatre, Orlando Shakespeare Theater, Orlando Repertory Theater. The force of their combined talents goes a long way toward making "A Christmas Survival Guide" the silly treat that it is.
The revue borrows its primary conceit from the playbook of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." As in that Broadway musical, the characters are reading a self-help book — "A Christmas Survival Guide" — and the audience hears what they are reading through a recorded voiceover (by Wayne Weinberg).
However, unlike in "How to Succeed…," there's no narrative story line. Instead there are setups to holiday songs old and new in a series of sketches, most of them comic. Director Keith Smith has seemingly told his cast to have fun with the material, and the merriment on their faces flows straight into the audience.
Caroline Drage goes over-the-top as a sexy Mrs. Claus who's sick of being neglected on Christmas Eve. She also delivers a heartfelt "All Those Christmas Cliches." If you don't know that song, part of the joy of this show is how it goes beyond the obvious for songs such as "I'd Like to Hitch a Ride with Santa Claus," delivered by Sarah Lee Dobbs in fine comic form with a generous helping of va-va-va-voom.
Amy Martin Cole is manically silly in "The Twelve Steps of Christmas" — a 12-step program take on the holidays. Yet she also performs the show's most poignant song, "Christmas Eve," with simple grace.
Sometimes the twist is in the musical arrangement. Kevin Kelly brightly clowns around in a jazzy "Silver Bells" with an urgent underscore by musical director and pianist John R. Mason III that lets the audience hear the "hustle and bustle."
Alexander Mrazek gives a straightforward rendition of "O Holy Night" that seems just right for the charmingly old-fashioned vibe, from the cardboard-cutout Christmas trees on stage to those bulbous tree lights of Christmases past that blink out into the theater.
It isn't until the end that the glow starts to fade. After admirably avoiding schmaltz as much as possible in a Christmas show, the production falls into sappiness with the finale, "The Greatest Gift," also hampered by mechanical boy-band choreography.
And maybe it's supposed to be ironic that right after that song tells us Christmas is in our hearts, not in our presents, we're treated that beloved ode to greed, "Everybody's Waitin' for the Man With the Bag."
But such is the fun in this most cheery of shows, that such transgressions are quickly forgotten in the spirit of the season.
'A Christmas Survival Guide'
• What: Garden Theatre production of a James Hindman-Ray Roderick holiday revue, sponsored by CenturyLink
• Length: 2:05, including intermission
• Where: Garden Theatre, 160 W. Plant St., Winter Garden
• When: 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Dec. 16
• Tickets: $29, $25 students and seniors
• Call: 407-877-4736
• Online: Gardentheatre.orgCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times