By Jim Rutter
FOR THE INQUIRER
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 www.act2.org