Longtime fans of the Brave New Workshop, our resident ensemble of reliably cracked comic commentators, will likely have mixed feelings about the group’s move to a new location in downtown Minneapolis. The Workshop’s former home in Uptown was, after all, revered as a comedy destination for over half a century. With such history in mind it comes as an enormous relief to state that the group’s sense of satirical absurdity has not only survived the move, but feels reinvigorated by the change of scenery. Of course, it helps that the debut revue in the new space happens to be the group’s annual Christmas skewering, a Twin Cities holiday tradition as time-honored as irresponsible spending sprees, estranged family gatherings, and traumatic childhood memories. Such dubious delights are just a few of the gifts offered by Miracle at 824 Hennepin Ave. – Skyway to the Manger Zone, the Brave New Workshop’s latest ode to holiday hysterics.
Easing the transition into the new location is a familiar lineup of Brave New Workshop regulars including cast members Lauren Anderson, Josh Eakright, Mike Fotis, Bobby Gardner, Ellie Hino, and Katy McEwen. In addition, the production boasts the work of returning technical director James Roop and longstanding musical director Peter Guertin. With the quick-witted sensibilities of director Caleb McEwen overseeing it all, Miracle at 824 Hennepin Ave. reflects the intuitive chemistry of an experienced ensemble. Which is not to say, however, that the show suffers from predictability; on the contrary, with the notable exceptions of the group’s cherished Twelve Days of Christmas parodies, The Shrieking Mothers Chorus and The Angry Fathers Chorus, the production showcases new observations of Yuletide insanity.
Demonstrating that the most relatable worries can evoke the most holiday humor, Miracle at 824 Hennepin Ave scores cathartic mirth with an uproarious game show styled sketch in which obnoxious relatives compete for the title of Who’s Gonna Ruin Christmas? While the sketch trades in broad clichés, the ruinous presence of unsavory family members feels all too real, especially as depicted in Eakright’s bitter uncle, Hino’s anxious aunt, Gardner’s closeted adolescent, and Anderson’s rancorous grandma.
On the other hand, calamities need no extended family, as evidenced by the grim consequences of a seemingly innocent gift of a pony named Popcorn. At the risk of understatement, the story of Popcorn is not for the squeamish. Balancing the horror, however, is an unexpectedly endearing look at elf training in which Fotis demands cheerfulness with the authoritative command of a drill sergeant.
Needless to say, the holidays wouldn’t be complete without carols, a fact the Brave New Workshop acknowledges with three particularly outstanding bits. The first, a parody reworking of the Charlie Daniels Band’s Devil Went Down to Georgia, finds McEwen singlehandedly restoring the economy with her reckless Christmas shopping. Another musical standout envisions Old Country Buffet as the place “where Christmas goes to die.” But the production’s most accomplished bit of musical theater has to be a pub set sketch wherein treasured Christmas memories turn sour with the crushing disappointments of adulthood. Set to the melancholic standard Those Were the Days, the sketch exemplifies the Brave New Workshop’s unparalleled ability to derive surprising poignancy from the seemingly absurd.
True to the nature of comedy revues, not all of the sketches come off as successfully. An opening bit featuring Eakright’s uncanny portrayal of Hank Williams Jr. captures the subject with lunkheaded perfection but doesn’t push much beyond the surface. Similarly, Fotis’ anguished narrative of geriatric lovemaking is rife with potential, but struggles to sustain the humor.
Knowing the comedic perfectionism of the Brave New Workshop, however, it’s entirely possible that any such minor misfires will be realigned over ensuing performances. Ultimately Miracle at 824 Hennepin Ave. delivers all the dysfunctional holiday cheer we’ve come to expect from our favorite group of habitually naughty pranksters. The address might have changed, but rest assured that the irreverent laughs remain.
Miracle at 824 Hennepin Ave. – Skyway to the Manger Zone runs through January 28th.