Here in Cleveland, we suffer from what might be called “Holiday Show Derangement Syndrome.” The symptoms of HSDS fall into three basic categories: theaters that repeat the same shows year after year (after year), riding those cash cows till their udders scrape the ground; theaters that ignore the holidays and risk not selling as many tickets as their counterparts because patrons are desperate for “holiday” cheer (especially this fucking year!); and theaters that whip up their own original shows in hopes of landing a fresh take on a predictable time of the calendar.
This year, that final category is represented by the awkwardly titled Light the Lights, Ol’ Moses CLE at Cleveland Public Theatre. Subtitled “A Wild Holiday Romp,” this overly earnest and lead-footed show is about as far from a romp as a Trump cabinet nominee is from the bread line. Clearly, much time and effort has gone into assembling this random collection of vignettes, songs and skits, but their efforts are mostly for naught.
In each of the two acts, there are four pieces that are named and credited in the program, and they are surrounded by other usually smaller efforts that try to form some sort of connective tissue for the entire enterprise. Unfortunately, it doesn’t hang together. That fact is granted in the program note from co-directors Raymond Bobgan and Beth Wood when they say, “We look to you (the audience) to tie these scenes together.”
Well, that’s a daunting task since these scenes include references to Moses Cleveland, the biblical Moses, Dr. Faustus, the glories of binge drinking, Lebron James (several different times), an abusive husband and father, and historical references to Christmas and other holidays which are dragged in kicking and screaming from Wikipedia.
The things that don’t work in this show are many and varied. A “Cleveland Line Dance” that could be witty but isn’t—due to tired jabs at Parma (Really? Still?), the Indians and other worn-out Cleveburg icons. There’s a woman hosting the whole shebang who encourages the audience to drink but seems far too sober herself (at one point she says “What the frig!” Really? Frig?). There’s two angels doing a juvenile rendering of Christmas Carols that have words with a sexual connotation (ie. “Come all ye faithful”), which is hilarious if you’re still in the Fourth Grade. Or maybe if you’re completely wasted on the wine and beer CPT is selling at the cabaret-style tables.
But there isn’t enough wine and beer in all of CLE to make this stuff work. Almost every one of the vignettes goes on too long, which adds up to a show that pushes past 2½ hours with an intermission. And when the show tries to get serious, it trots out over-emotional tripe such as: “We try to live life as fully as possible with the ones we love.” That banal thought would have gotten you fired at American Greetings 50 years ago.
There are a couple pieces that have a certain fleeting charm. The Act One closer is a song, “A Call to Midnight,” written and performed by Molly Andrews-Hinders that is pleasantly diverting, even though excessively lengthy. And a playlet by John Busser, in which some kids’ letters to Santa get delivered to Satan because the kiddies get the letters wrong, is mildly amusing. It also plays long, but it ends in a carnal embrace between those two red-suited icons that is properly arresting.
The hardworking 13-person CPT cast gives it their all, but there just isn’t anywhere to go when attempts at humor lack wit and when forays into emotional connection quickly spiral into maudlin sentimentality. Bobgan and Woods are both accomplished theater professionals, but this show (and to some degree in their other holiday property, The Loush Sisters), proves they need to take a break from trying to create a holiday show from scratch and just do their own version of a classic. Now that might be worth a toast or three.
Light the Lights, Ol’ Moses CLE
Through December 18 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727.