Can you laugh heartily and still want more? That may be your reaction after watching Second City's A Christmas Carol: Twist Your Dickens! at the Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre. One wants every moment to pop, if not explode, but too many of the jokes in this parody simply land like a lead balloon instead.
What makes the show somewhat disappointing is that its writers, Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort, have an impressive pedigree as writers of The Colbert Report. Much of the show's humor is very literate and clever: they mock the de-Christianizing of Christmas though the mouths of Peanuts characters; they devise a union for disenfranchised orphans led by Oliver Twist; and they even satirize the popular personal injury lawyer commercials seen on television, using Dickens characters. However, some of these bits were too clever by half, provoking a "aha" instead of a "haha", and too many jokes were underdeveloped. The result felt like a form of comic whiplash.
Director Marc Warzecha has smartly assembled a talented and very funny group of recognizable comic actors who are experts on in the art of skewering. Voiceover specialist Dan Castellaneta – best known as the voice of Homer Simpson -- plays a slew of roles including A Christmas Carols Jacob Marley, and delivers a spot-on impression of It's A Wonderful Lifes George Bailey, who has wandered into Victorian England begging Scrooge for money. Former MAD TV star Frank Caeti is hilarious as both a heckler in the audience pontificating about the anachronisms in the show and as a 1980s-obsessed Ghost of Christmas Past.
Other fine contributions are made by Larry Joe Campbell, who lets it all hang out as hung-over Ghost of Christmas Present; Amanda Blake Davis, who plays Mrs Cratchit with a touch of Lady Macbeth; and Brian Stepanek and Jean Villepique, who are delightful as Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim. The one weak link in the cast is Ron West as Scrooge, who is never cruel or funny enough to carry the evening. However, because the script keeps cutting away from his storyline, the audience never gets significant time to invest in him.
In an inspired touch, Gwinn and Mort added some improvisation to the proceedings by using confessions that audience members have written on paper before the show. These dirty little secrets, like "I cheated on my boyfriend when he had pink eye," become running gags throughout the show.
One other special element of the show is the nightly cameo appearances by famous guest stars, which adds some extra celebrity luster to the evening come out as themselves to introduce the Peanuts skit ala Alastair Cooke on PBS' Masterpiece Theatre. For my performance, Tom Everett Scott mocked his C-Level celebrity status with great charm. (Upcoming guests are scheduled to include actors French Stewart, Stephen Tobolowsky, Vern Troyer, and Rita Wilson).
While A Christmas Carol: Twist Your Dickens! is a diverting evening in the theater, it doesn't quite live up to the high standards set by the name Second City.