Bryant Lake Bowl has it all: drinks, great food, shoe rental, and of course what bowling alley is complete without a theater? I’ve been to this theater before, I used to take my oldest son there for these London After Midnight serial productions featuring Varney the Vampire and Springheeled Jack. And my youngest son gave a guitar recital there once. So this theatre has some nice associations for me. It’s a blackbox theater perfect for comedy shows like Letters to Santa Assemble!. There’s a back section of stadium seating and then a floor section that goes right up to the stage of what can only be described as too many chairs. The theater probably seats 140 and should seat 110. Luckily I like to be in the front row, and we were there early enough to get that and on the aisle. The seating is general admission and the parking is mostly street, so I recommend getting there a little early.
Letters to Santa Assemble! is a one woman show co-written by Janelle Ranek and Brenda Lucy. The show was co-directed by Brenda Lucy and Nancy Michael. The performer is Janelle Ranek who channels 10 different characters in just over an hours time. Each character has it’s time in the sun narrating their letter to Santa. It opens with Larry Dyc, not a Dick or a Dyke it’s Dyc, like what you roll in vegas. His aspiration is to get one of his ideas picked by Shark Tank, and his creations are very unique and funny. Next we get the vacuous Amber Holstein who wants to be a social media influencer, if there is a way to misunderstand something she will, and if there isn’t, she will anyway. Nora Pearl wants Santa’s help to get her books onto Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club, with titles like Being Fat is Less Work and Don’t Touch The Raccoon!, a parenting book of course, I’m not sure even Santa has enough clout to get that wish fulfilled. There are many more until the show culminates with a video piece featuring Gloria and Hillderina. Once that ends Ranek walks up from the back of the theater in costume as Gloria and answers questions that the audience provided before the show. When you go write a raunchy question, they were the most fun.
Now the key to this type of comedy is that each character needs to feel fully developed and distinct. It reminds me of some great British TV series like Little Britain or Inside No. 9, where you have two actors who play multiple roles or new roles in every episode. That can only work if you have actors who can create these distinct personalities and on some level they all seem true. That isn’t something every actor can do. Janelle Ranek is an actor who can. There are no two characters that could ever be mistaken for each other, they all look and sound different. Almost all the costume changes take place onstage gracefully with the lights dimmed while a song plays that informs the audience to some aspect of the next character. For instance, for the writer Nora Pearl, we hear “Paperback Writer” by The Beatles. These changes are not that elaborate, a change of sweater, a wig, some glasses and we are confronted by a completely new character. It’s the change in voice and mannerisms that sell the new characters. All of them are unique and all of them are very funny.
Having a great comedic actor isn’t going to get you anywhere if you don’t have a funny script. Luckily not only is Ranek a great comedic character actor but along with Brenda Lucy she’s a very funny writer as well. It’s hard to say which is better the script or the performance, but I think I’ll give the edge to the performance. There are several instances where what the character says is not as funny as the way in which Ranek says it. The laugh comes not from the lines in those cases but from the line reading. Either way, Letters to Santa Assemble! is a great fun, full of characters you will remember, and plenty of laughs to get you in a jolly frame of mind.
For more information on Letters to Santa Assemble! and to buy tickets visit the Bryant Lake Bowl website at https://www.bryantlakebowl.com/theater/letters-to-santa-assemble/?mc_id=1615 . The last performance is Friday December 27th. This is the 15th year for this show, and I can see why people would come back year after year, as I imagine the letters change but we probably get some of the same characters back year after year.