The set-up: Christmas comes early to Theatre Suburbia, as we are treated to the Houston premiere of a comedy set in Santa's North Pole workshop, as elves cope amusingly with a number of production problems.
The execution: If you're looking for Ibsen, you're barking up the wrong chimney. This line is not from the script, but it might have come from the lips of Bozidar, Santa's mechanic, who delightfully garbles common expressions - a device which works beautifully. My favorite among many gems was "Mind your p's and cupids." There are a lot more, but I won't spoil your enjoyment by giving them away.
Bozidar is played by Tony D'Armata with perky energy, great style, and an accent that might be Scottish - he seems to be a distant cousin of Scotty on Star Trek. Equally fetching is Kelly Browning as Octavia, Santa's housekeeper, who combines great body language and a deliberately shrill voice to create a vivid, interesting and eminently likable character.
The linchpin of course is Santa himself, overseeing all the hijinks, and Michael J. Steinbach shows us the human Santa, a dedicated, benevolent manager with a keen sense of humor. His performance is impressive and he holds the events together with authentic charm.
Bob Galley plays a glib, aggressive salesman intent on selling Santa a rocket sleigh, and Galley makes the character compelling, persuasive, and funny. Keitha Mae Hanks plays Kit Bishop, a young stowaway with an agenda, and she finds life in the character in Act Two after a subdued entry in Act One.
Santa apparently uses the "just-in-time" method of inventory control, as a missed shipment of glue threatens disaster. There are other subplots, of course, and if you care for that sort of thing, they are there for you to savor - Octavia's unrequited love, Kit Bishop's hardworking mother - but much of the fun is in the running gags, the amusingly detailed set, and the colorful costumes - I especially loved the green elf shoes with the curled toes, and Octavia's vest very heavily embroidered with Christmas scenes.
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As the adult among the elves, Andrew Miles is excellent, and it's always pleasant to see children on stage; there are a number here, as elves and as characters. David James Barron plays Algernon, Santa's chief-of-staff, but fails to find the fun in the role, despite finding the smile. Algernon is intended to be officious, and a bit pompous, but this needn't mean heavy-handed, ponderous or boring. Barron pauses before most lines, as though the Gettysburg Address was about to begin, and even pauses within a line, draining the moment of its vitality. One example: "May I (pause) sit (pause) here?"
The pace in general might be picked up, especially in Act One. Elvin Moriarty, artistic director of Theatre Suburbia, directed this comedy, and found just the right tone for its gentle humor. The work is by Norm Foster, Canada's most prolific and most produced playwright, and this is its Houston premiere.
The verdict: A slight comedy perfect for the holiday season delights with gentle charm, and is strengthened by skilled acting which adds humanity and wit to the pleasant goings-on.
Dear Santa continues through December 3 at Theatre Suburbia, 4106 Way Out West Drive, between 43rd & Hempstead Hwy. For information or tickets, call 713-682-3525 or visit www.theatresuburbia.org.