Saturday, October 10, 2015

Review: 'Oh What Fun!'

A few funny moments sparkle in Act II's decidedly unoriginal holiday show.

Review: 'Oh What Fun!'

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L to R: Tony Braithwaite, Will Dennis, Howie Brown and Sonny Leo star in "Oh What Fun!"

By Jim Rutter


Ambler audiences love comedic performer Tony Braithwaite so much that a year ago, Act II Playhouse appointed him Artistic Director. The company could no doubt cover its expenses each season by installing Braithwaite in their lobby with a tip jar and letting local patrons come in and pay him by the joke.

Oh What Fun!, the company’s current variety act, shows about that much originality in approach. The opening musical number coasts on Jingle Bells’ melody, substituting lyrics like “witty bits, improv skits, faces you may know.”

The production delivers two of the three. Braithwaite and his co-creators/co-performers created Oh What Fun! as a tribute to television holiday specials from the 1960s to today. Lead-offs  to each skit touch on the history of these seasonal sketch shows, mostly through the genre’s worst moments: Dean Martin commemorating Christmas at Sea World, a sing-through litany of the worst holiday music written (“Daddy please don’t get drunk on Christmas”) and humorous riffs on some of TV’s more unlikely hosts. 

Braithwaite excels at impersonation; he employs a different voice to recite each pair of stanzas of Clement Clarke Moore’s “Twas the Night before Xmas”, including Presidents, male and female celebrity icons, and Mayor Nutter. His vocal dexterity impresses as the highlight of the evening.

Mary Carpenter’s direction races through each sketch, packing as much into 70 minutes as the cast can recite. Pianist Sonny Leo dazzles in a short tap number, Howie Brown contributes some smart moments as Braithwaite’s co-host/straight man, and Will Dennis adds some crude humor as Murray, a criminal Bi-MELF (bilingual mail-room elf), a dry well of innuendo from which the performers don’t hesitate to scrape even dusts of laughter.

Dennis’ role offers one of the more original moments in a decidedly unoriginal show. This lapse begs a question: since Braithwaite crafted exceptionally funny new material for the last half-decade during 1812 Productions’ This is the Week that Is, why didn’t he bring a similar inventive flair to his own troupe?

Oh What Fun! Presented through December 30 at Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Ave. Ambler, PA. Tickets: $22 to $33. Information: 215-654-0200 or

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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