by Sheila Watko
The entire room is decked out in tinsel, stockings are hung on various walls and two adorable elves known as the Mistletoe Munchkins (Joseph Allen and Morgan Hecker) hand out Pixie Sticks and Hershey kisses. Allen notices that I already have candy as he piles some more by my drink and says, “So naughty!” Carolers (including George Salazar, Chris Brick, Cori Stolburn and Alex Dorf) wear festive sweaters and go table to table singing and interacting with excited audience members. All of these sights and sounds can mean only one thing: it’s time for The 11th Annual Joe Iconis Christmas Extravaganza, a wacky, whimsical, candy cane-infused fever dream wonderland of a Christmas show.
For the eleventh year in a row, Joe Iconis (Larson Award winner; Drama Desk nominee; creator of Be More Chill, Broadway Bounty Hunter, The Black Suits) has gathered his closest musical theater friends to spread holiday cheer. All six shows, directed by John Simpkins and produced by Jennifer Ashley Tepper, are sold-out. There are over 50 cast members, some of whom vary depending on the performance date and time. I’m at the 7:00pm Saturday show. Over the course of two-and-a-half hours, Iconis and his merry crew perform a collection of holiday favorites. Along the way, we meet a cast of crazy characters, journey back in time to a dark Christmas of Iconis’ past, witness a failed proposal, cheer for not one but two long-lost parent-child reunions and even help save 54 Below from an evil politician and real estate tycoon. The rollicking opening number, Dolly Parton’s “With Bells On,” brings out the entire cast, spread across the stage and throughout the room, and sets the tone for a riotous evening of festive fun.
The entire show, including the band and every single cast member, is fantastic, but there are a few performances that really stand out. Iconis mentions his Long Island roots and seems so genuine when he introduces his “real aunt and uncle,” but the characters who take the stage are played by Danielle Gimbal and Sam Bolen. Gimbal is in a leopard-print dress carrying boxed wine while Bolen proudly dons an Islanders windbreaker. They show us “Christmas Around the World” and leave me screaming with laughter. Mustachioed bar keep Mr. Maccabee (James Penca) pops up throughout the show and is a delight every time. Tab-sipping 80s talent agent Deborah Eisenberq (Natalie Walker) is the highlight of a bizarrely hysterical 25-minute flashback storyline. The aforementioned evil real estate mogul Phyllidia Krampington (Julia Mattison) and cranky old Melvin Cooterstein (Will Roland) sing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” during which they tackle a modern seasonal controversy: does the song blur the lines of consent, or is it simply a product of its time that uses colloquialisms of the day? Vocal powerhouse Ally Bonino shines during “Please Come Home for Christmas,” sung to a depressed Santa (Jason SweetTooth Williams) while Mrs. Claus (Lorinda Lisitza) drinks herself into oblivion. The entire company takes over the room with performances of “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “Holly Jolly Christmas” that would warm up even the coldest of hearts. Sweet Baby Jesus (Bill Coyne) steals the show from the moment he emerges onto the bar dressed only in a loincloth diaper. Iconis and a waitress named Denise (Tatiana Wechsler) get the whole room involved when they perform “Fairytale of New York,” a song that I don’t think gets nearly enough play around the holidays. Iconis plays his rock-and-roll Christmas original “Celebrate Christmas (With Me)” and the energy onstage is unstoppable. And because this show is the definition of over-the-top, the finale is not one, not two, but three songs. The entire company sits on the floor among the audience and sings “The Goodbye Song” (an Iconis original from the NBC musical drama Smash), “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).”
With such a huge cast, audience interaction is a big part of the show, whether cast members are singing right next to an audience member’s chair, pulling people up onstage to dance during “Christmas Around the World” or, in the case of Sweet Baby Jesus, crawling across tables and getting very up close and personal. A Swedish YouTuber (Jordan Stanley) carries a giant Christian Borle cardboard cutout through the crowd. He stops to ask an audience member what her favorite Christmas song is… and the audience member chosen happens to be me. I tell him I love Wham!’s “Last Christmas” and he asks if I want to sing a few bars with him. We sing the chorus together before he instructs me to feed cardboard Borle a piece of Panettone. It is the strangest interaction I’ve ever had in all my years enjoying theater and I love every second of it.
The Christmas Extravaganza has been going for eleven years strong and after experiencing it, I understand why. The show is insane and ridiculous in the best way possible, making the audience laugh uncontrollably while still telling multiple stories and exercising the cast’s endless musical talent. I have every intention of making a night at The Joe Iconis Christmas Extravaganza a holiday tradition from now on.
Photos: Sheila Watko
The 11th Annual Joe Iconis Christmas Extravaganza at Feinstein’s/54 Below, 254 West 54th Street, NYC