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article imageReview: New Second City holiday revue lacks chemistry, edge of past shows Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Nov 28, 2018 in Entertainment
Toronto - The holidays are a time of disappointment for some, from kids who get nothing but clothes from Santa to single adults spending the season alone. This year, some Second City fans in Toronto might feel seasonal letdown by the company’s new revue.
It’s not that It’s a Wild, Rowdy, Wonderful Life, which opened this week, doesn’t have its funny moments, with a talented cast (the touring company) aiming to please. But compared to Second City’s last two holiday shows, this one feels thrown together, with a very mixed bag of material. There’s a shortage of strong chemistry between the cast members at times, and most of the satire lacks the sharp teeth that you’ve come to expect of Second City – as if they’re trying to be careful. Director Connor Thompson stages some scenes with great energy, while others feel routine.
It feels a bit false to call this a holiday revue, actually, since many of the sketches have nothing to do with the holidays. This is like a lesser Mainstage revue with the season as a recurring theme. From an unmemorable opening musical number to a fun improv bit about a Nativity movie that changes with each network airing it, the holidays are there, but seemingly in passing.
One major exception is a hilarious scene in the second half in which Matt Folliott can’t escape Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” – it’s on every radio station, in every phone call – until the premise turns into a horror movie. Who can’t relate to that? Another funny sketch has Jillian Welsh as a little boy who spots a man in a half-baked Santa Claus costume on the subway (she assumes his LCBO bag is his sack of toys), and the cast later turns winter workplace illness into a strange, amusing musical composition of sneezes and hacking coughs.
Otherwise, the best moments in the show are ones that could work just as well at any time of the year. One highlight lets Clare McConnell show off her solo skills, as she transforms the whole “See the airplane flying!” approach to spoon-feeding into a long, frantic narrative involving air turbulence, a crash and even wildlife attacks. McConnell also shines in a weird number about the last Christmas turkey left in the No Frills store, with a wing-sporting turkey walk that’s somehow both awkward and graceful.
Welsh, who was great in last year’s The Good, the Bad & the Ugly Sweater, is funny as a human-resources rep who turns into a Mary Poppins clone and sings a Disneyesque song about how to be politically correct to co-workers during the holidays; the sketch is contrived, but she carries it well. Natalie Metcalfe, another returning holiday-revue cast member, does well in her multiple roles, and Christian Smith is fun as an oversized bat who invades a couple’s cottage.
Other scenes range from mildly funny to forgettable. A puzzling improv bit has Metcalfe and McConnell as elderly European immigrant ladies with scarves around their heads, calling out audience members and spurring them to be nice to each other; the characters have comic potential, but it doesn’t go anywhere. There’s more wasted opportunity in a scene about Smith celebrating a Macedonian holiday that isn’t much different from Christmas, while a sketch about an unrequited friendship between two work colleagues (Welsh and Metcalfe) is cute, but runs a bit long.
Identity politics and progressive “woke” themes seem to be obligatory in comedy these days, for better or worse. In one scene, Smith plays a father who’s overprotective of his teenage daughter (Metcalfe) while allowing his son (Folliott) to play with fireworks and do whatever else he wants; the point about gender double standards is clear, but it’s not terribly funny. Later, Welsh plays a lesbian with an affecting monologue about an ex who has been shamed by her family, lamenting that “she’s not gay anymore.” The latter scene is actually well performed and could have been strong and powerful in a completely different kind of show, but it seems out of place in a revue that includes wacky dancing turkeys and bats.
For all its good parts, It’s a Wild, Rowdy, Wonderful Life doesn’t quite live up to the fun, edgy promise of its title. A Christmas or holiday sketch revue should feel like a rare event, and the season is ripe with opportunities to satirize traditions while paying respect to them. Maybe next year, Second City will find its holiday spirit again.
It’s a Wild, Rowdy, Wonderful Life runs at the Second City Mainstage until January 1.
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