Wacky mix of Nativity and the piano man

It's time to break out the spiked eggnog again. The Troubadour Theater Company's intensely wacky improvisers, found regularly at Garry Marshall's Falcon Theatre in Burbank, are back with their annual Christmas show. "The First Jo-el" combines the giant song catalog of Billy Joel with the greatest story ever told, the birth of that famous baby in a manger in Bethlehem.

One would think after 15 years of the Troubies' special brand of pop culture mash-ups, there would be nothing left to parody or some of the novelty might wear off. But mastermind Matt Walker and his zany cohorts continually find new ways to tinker with their formula.

"The First Jo-el" appears to be based on some uncredited aberration of a Christmas TV Special from the distant past. The fact that Walker wrings so much emotion and comedy from such thin material is further proof their satire machine runs on its own magic fumes now.

Twenty-odd tunes from Joel pop up in brief renditions throughout, but somehow seem like an afterthought once the hilarious plot gets rolling.

Around the time in history when B.C. turned to A.D., young Palestinian couple Leticia (Katie Nunez) and Manolo (Matt Morgan) are just about to welcome their first child into the world. Letty's parents are innkeepers, the grouchy Nicholas (Jack McGee) and the jovial Greta (Lisa Valenzuela).

Three "wise guys" named Gold (Matt Walker), Myr (Brandon Breault) and Frankenstein (Morgan Rusler) arrive declaring they've followed a star in the sky to the remote inn expecting a heavenly birth. Dollar signs in his eyes, Nicholas seizes on the opportunity to advertise his own daughter as the Miracle Mom.

When Mary (Katherine Malak) and Joseph (Matt Walker) show up seeking shelter for an impending miracle birth of their own, things start to spiral out of control.

But director Walker keeps a tight enough rein on the silliness, meaning the pace never drags. Meanwhile, the return of a brief intermission to the show is quite welcome, as it gives the audience time to catch their breath from laughing so hard.

Some unsung heroes working behind the scenes at almost every Troubie show include Eric Heinly's precise backing band. Since piano man Joel is the source music, Kevin McCourt on keyboards and Hayan Charlston on sax get a heavy workout.

Other than the widening gulf between good singing voices and bad singing voices, the cast is uniformly terrific, bringing energy and vibrancy to every scene.

McGee and Valenzuela display a tender chemistry as the innkeepers, while Rusler steals all his scenes playing both Frankenstein and the play's only truly historical character, King Herod.

Beth Kennedy succeeds with inventive improvisation in multiple roles including Hoffy and the Winter Warlock. She's reminiscent of Kristen Wiig from SNL, but even better.

Playing angels, Christine Lakin and Jackie Seiden sing and dance their hearts out in every number.

But the highlight is a beautifully intertwined medley of three of Jo-el's best ballads, "She's Got A Way," "Just the Way You Are" and "She's Always A Woman," performed by each of the play's romantically linked couples.

It all blends seamlessly, like the rest of this Christmas show that brings together irreverent humor and religious reverence. In "The First Jo-el," the Troubies once again spin comedy gold out of virtually nothing.

JAMES PETRILLO is an actor and screenwriter from Los Angeles.



What: Troubadour Theater Company's "The First Jo-el" directed by Matt Walker

Where: The Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and 4 and 7 p.m. Sunday until Jan. 16. Added performance at 8 p.m. Dec. 21. No shows Dec. 24, 25, 26, 31 and Jan. 1.

Tickets: $27 to $42

Contact: (818) 955-8101 or visit http://www.falcontheatre.com

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