Review: ‘Making Spirits Bright’ for sure

 Will Dennis (left), Anne Wechsler and Tony Braithwaitein 'Making Spirits Bright' at Act II Playhouse in Ambler. (Photo courtesy ofBill D'Agostino.)

Will Dennis (left), Anne Wechsler and Tony Braithwaitein 'Making Spirits Bright' at Act II Playhouse in Ambler. (Photo courtesy ofBill D'Agostino.)

Part cabaret, part improvisation, part variety show and all smiles, “Making Spirits Bright” is appropriately named. The original comedy show produced by Act II Playhouse in Ambler plays in front of Maura Roche’s holiday-happy red wall, bedecked with empty white frames suggesting family and home, and complete with a false fireplace. The only thing missing is some flocked wallpaper and granny, sitting in her corner rocking-chair and smiling wisely at the carefree proceedings.

 

I don’t mean to imply that “Making Spirits Bright” is stuffy or antiquated – just the opposite. It’s a fast-paced 75 minutes of singing, spoofing and skits with a talented cast, several of them Act II regulars. But there’s something soothing about the show – it’s the theatrical equivalent of comfort food. Roche’s set is supposed to be a parlor, and the show is made for one – parlor games and all. 

 

A “This Is Your Life Segment,” for instance, is a sendup of the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” but uses an audience member’s milestones for its content. In another segment, the audience throws out ideas for the subject of a joke, and four of the cast members pounce on the ideas to create and deliver jokes on the spot.

The cast is highly personable: Act II’s producing artistic director Tony Braithwaite (his reading of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” by imitating umpteen celebs and four presidents is a highlight) is joined by the stage company’s managing director Howie Brown. The charming Anne Wechsler and Will Dennis play a couple exchanging their gifts over the years, in a funny and sweet piece that recurs through the show. Sonny Leo breaks from his piano bench, where he’s accompanying everything, to tap dance his way across the stage to the catchy tune “I Love a Piano.”

And everybody sings – first a medley of real Christmas songs we don’t generally hear (Please Daddy Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas,” for one), then some well-known holiday songs usurped to sell products over the decades. Braithwaite offers a perfectly smug and stodgy theater critic assessing the local elementary- and middle-school holiday shows, taken from a piece written by humorist David Sedaris. A six-year-old playing Mary, the critic sneers, “hardly manages to pass herself off as a virgin.” (Sedaris wrote the piece as part of a collection called “Holiday on Ice,” which is being done through the weekend at Society Hill Playhouse in Center City.)

There’s more, but to tell you might ruin the surprises. One thing, though, is no surprise – that Act II, which has created holiday delights before this, can serve up one as entertaining as “Making Spirits Bright.”

“Making Spirits Bright” is extended through Jan. 3 at Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Ave., Ambler. 215-654-0200 or www.act2.org.

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