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THEATER REVIEW ‘ST. ELMO’S BOXING DAY’ : Nice Try, but . . . : With songs, stories and dances and a Christmas theme, this experimental show could use a bit more work.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“St. Elmo’s Boxing Day” originated in the mind of actor Elmo Stokely as a Plaza Players variety show with a Christmasy theme, even though Boxing Day, a British holiday, falls the day after Christmas.

That was the plan, but Stokely is nowhere to be found while the Players proceed anyway.

Stokely, the story goes, was going to put the show together and remain more or less backstage, except for a solo on the bagpipes. He’s not in the Plaza Players’ production. He’s not even in Ventura County or even the United States. As the legend continues, Stokely was so enraptured by the bagpipes that he’s now in Scotland, continuing his studies on the instrument.

Which left the show in the hands of Plaza Players artistic director Michael Maynez, who has wisely mounted it under the group’s Theater Lab banner.

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The Lab is an experimental program, in which the actors and backstage people work things out in front of an audience. Their last production--"The Frantic Man"--played in October and November. Its shape (and, presumably, quality) radically changed during the run.

If ever a show was experimental and needing to be worked out, it’s “St. Elmo’s Boxing Day.”

An assemblage of songs, stories and dances, the show’s continuity comes from a narrator opening various Christmas packages, “a panache of gifts” to the audience, he explains in a puzzling turn of phrase.

Each unwrapping initiates a new number, be it a reading from Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” or a version of the old Fats Waller-associated number “I’m Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.” Strict association with the holidays is, obviously, optional.

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On opening night, the cast seemed at times to be making things up as they went along. Most notable was the narrator, Ted Herzberg, who became more and more embarrassed as he realized how tedious and repetitive were his trips from a podium to the upstage fireplace where many of the boxes were kept. He tried to keep up good spirits, interjecting little song fragments to while away the long walks, but to little avail.

This--along with the seemingly endless instrumental version of “Jingle Bells” with which keyboardist and musical director Kae Herron opened the show--is something that should have been discovered and worked out during rehearsal.

Herron reappeared later in full clown drag to perform a vocal number; thereafter, she remained in costume. The result was the rather odd juxtaposition of harmonica player Eddie Montez and singer Leila Perlmutter delivering serious renditions of “Misty” and “Wind Beneath My Wings,” (separately, thank heaven) accompanied by Bozo at the piano.

Some of the musical numbers were accompanied, karaoke-like, by prerecorded backing tracks.

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A spotlight seemed to have a mind of its own, at times remaining static while performers moved in and out of it, and at other times acting like Tinkerbell in “Peter Pan,” fluttering all over the stage. About two-thirds of the way through the show, someone got the idea of opening up the spotlight a bit further, which helped a bit.

Highlights, such as they were, included an amusing sketch (with no Christmas association whatever) written by Michael Perlmutter and featuring Leila Perlmutter, a brassy Kaye Ballard type, as a neophyte actor at an audition.

You get the idea. Other cast members include Ernest Huntley, Marnell Lloyd, choreographer Melissa Fair, Scott Brodie, Aram Freeman, Howard Waggoner, Christina Zamora, Fiona Spring, Maia Richards, John Ivory and Darrell Safi Dona’t.

The Players have already announced “St. Elmo” No. 2 for next season.

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* WHERE AND WHEN

“St. Elmo’s Boxing Day” continues Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights at 8 through Dec. 28 at the Plaza Players Theater, 34 N. Palm St., Ventura. Tickets are $6 on Wednesday, $7.50 on Friday, and $8.50 on Saturdays, and members of the audience are asked to bring donations of packaged or canned foods, or a children’s gift for distribution to the otherwise unspecified “less fortunate.” For reservations or further information, call 643-9460.


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