By ALAN SMASON
New Orleanians need little excuse to have a party. They can do so at the drop of a hat and frequently do.
But as quick as they celebrate Mardi Gras and revel with October’s Halloween, there is little to connect them with a modern celebration of Christmas. That is until now.
Leslie Castay and Ian Hoch have created “A New Holiday Musical,” Mandatory Merriment, with Castay directing and Hoch starring as one of a six-member cast. Included in the cast is Alan Payne, who serves as the music director at the keyboards and also plays the role of Benny, the owner of the tavern, where the action takes place.
The premise behind the show is the implausible arrival of a blizzard, the likes of which the city has never seen. Local Fox8 celebrities David Bernard, the weathercaster, and Lee Zurik, the anchor, keep the audience and the cast members informed as they all seek refuge at Benny’s Bar, much to the chagrin of Benny and the delight of Dewey (Clint Johnson), his bartender and would-be manager.
Traditional popular Christmas music along with some more local holiday treats take the audience along for the sleigh ride starting with “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and concluding with “Christmas in New Orleans.”
Most of the songs are well-known bluesy numbers like “Please Come Home for Christmas” by Dewey that opens Act II or “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Angela (Whitney Mixon) and the company. But Castay and Hoch also added several Yuletide selections with a local flavor such as “Bon Temps Cajun Christmas,” an original work by local singer Banu Gibson that is sung by Angela, Curtis (Chivas Michael) and the company as well a rarely-heard Italian duet titled “Dominic the Donkey” that tourist Ryan (Hoch) sings with his wife Maggie (Meredith Long).
It’s a silly show, but a funny show that doesn’t feel like it’s stretching credulity. The very realistic set by David Raphael gives a homey feel to the show and the music helps develop the characters – and they are all very much characters – that we come to care for.
Curtis is established as an hysterical New Orleans investigator, who puts up a brave front with regard to a failing relationship. It turns out Angela is his cousin and she knows all about his relationship. She attempts to give him words of counsel during the blizzard, which keeps all of the strangers hunkered down at Benny’s.
His “I Don’t Remember Christmas” is a tearful ballad that underscores his past, but he also lends his vocal talent to “A Marshmallow World” and their version of Chuck Berry’s “Run, Rundolph, Run.”
Johnson is a talented piano player, who fills in for Payne when takes center stage to sing his song “Nobody Cares About Santa.” His bluesy vocals score big in the Act II opener “Please Come Home for Christmas” as well as in Act I’s “Boogie Woogie Christmas.”
There’s a lot to like about this holiday show that seems destined to be remounted at future Christmas seasons. Castay and Hoch can be proud for all their collaboration including excellent lighting design by Mandi Wood and great sound by David Rigamer. Also, a big shout out to Julie Winn for tremendous costume designs that give flavor to the cast members.
Mandatory Merriment continues at the new permanent home of Southern Rep at 2541 Bayou Road in New Orleans with shows at 7:30 p.m. nightly on Friday through Saturday and matinees on Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through December 23. For more information, call 504-522-6545 or click here for ticket information.