'A Christmas Survival Guide' review: Dio welcomes back audiences with festive themed delight
Courtesy of Michele Anliker Photography
Each year, it seems the holidays grow more and more hectic and before we know it, Christmas arrives without so much as a hello or goodbye. If you're like the crazy and heartfelt personalities in James Hindman and Ray Roderick’s “A Christmas Survival Guide” that’s either a bad thing or…a bad thing. Indeed, there isn’t so much a plot in The Dio’s delightful production “A Christmas Survival Guide” but a connective tissue: the stress of the holiday season. Whether being single, dreaming of being a mall-Santa Claus, and hilariously going through a 12-step program about obsessive holiday habits, we’ve all been there. Especially this year where it seems society has skipped Thanksgiving and headed right into oncoming Black Friday traffic. Still, Steve DeBruyne’s heartfelt musical revue gives audiences plenty to embrace and considering The Dio has been on hiatus since March, 2020, watching “A Christmas Survival Guide,” you’d never know it. It’s like they’ve never left.
There's no better way to get in the holiday mood than spend it with an engaging cast who’s beautiful harmonies propel traditional bops and introduce new ones. Sarah Brown, Racheal Cupples, Steve DeBruyne, Perry Devon Quarker Jr, Angela Hench, Casey Baker and the “voice” of the survival guide Jon King elevate this sketch musical beyond the typical seasonal production. Each song from “Carol of the Bells” to “Everybody’s Waiting for the Man with the Bag” spruces to life with its own miniature vignette, a story within a story.
The framing device solidifies the holidays as a ticking bomb: “Only 174 shopping days until Christmas! Happy Fourth of July!” the opening narration relies, followed quickly by “127 days” and “30 days” and so on. We watch as the six person ensemble realize there’s no escaping their fate (in which the show physically manifests) including a shotty production of “Rudolph: The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” enduring a hectic sleigh ride, and getting roped into caroling.
Throughout “A Christmas Survival Guide,” characters are reading (more like worshipping) a textbook of the same name, offering them advice on how to handle the stressful holiday season. Several memorable and often hilarious sequences ensue where the cast make great use of The Dio’s intimate setting. Matt Tomich’s pristine scenic work does wonders here, creating an open, festive playground for the actors to wrangle through all their holiday problems. Each performer is given a moment to shine; Perry Devon Quarker Jr, in his Dio debut, is a scene stealer, grabbing howls of laughter from his “Silver Bells” and “Santa Claus is Back in Town” where he embodies a cross of Elvis and a sexy Santa Claus; it’s always wonderful to hear Sarah Brown belting those Soprano money notes and her Act 2 opener: “The Twelve Steps of Christmas” is a physical doozy (it also helps to have excellent comedic timing, which she does).
Elsewhere, Dio staple Angela Hench gets to showcase a softer side of her beautiful voice with “All those Christmas Cliches,” but there’s a small cameo shared alongside Steve DeBruyne in the unforgettable “Santa Fantasy” where she, let’s just say, goes through a unique and hilarious transformation. Speaking of DeBruyne, who pulls double duties as director, he keeps the tempo cruising throughout the breezy two hour production and watching him undergo, in real time, a live on-stage Santa Claus reconfiguration was a comedic, Jerry Lewis style highlight.
Racheal Cupples (who also choreographed) is equally as memorable during “TV Christmas Medley” (which is a mashup of several iconic christmas catalog hits) where her “Feliz Navidad” had me and the entire crowd rolling in our chairs. Music director Casey Baker, dubbed the “Married Man” by the entire cast, not only sits behind the keyboards but performs alongside the cast, bringing rowdy energy to “Reindeer Boogie” and though he’s never physically seen, Jon King’s performance as the “voice” of the survival guide handbook (overheard during the show) is a wonderful cherry on top of an already stellar production.
Costumes by Norma Polk, characters are fitted with bedazzled Christmas tuxedo jackets and a rowdy Chewbaca ugly sweater, keeps the actors in rhythm as does Eileen Obradovich’s prop design. Of course, you can’t mention The Dio without commenting on the dinner included with your ticket, which plays like a greatest hits menu consisting of signature fried chicken and a yummy pudding dessert served during intermission. There’s plenty to savor on stage, and the food remains top-notch. Musical arrangements by John Glaudini and the book aren’t revelatory, but credit to DeBruyne and this wonderfully harmonious company for wrapping a nice bow on the evening where The Dio celebrated its triumphant return. Bust out the AMEX platinum, you don’t want to miss this one.
The Dio’s production of “A Christmas Survival Guide” continues through December 23rd. You can purchase tickets here