It's Ugly Sweaters Time at TUTS in a New Christmas Premiere

The cast of The Ugly Xmas Sweater Musical at Theatre Under the Stars.
The cast of The Ugly Xmas Sweater Musical at Theatre Under the Stars. Photo by Melissa Taylor

Did ugly Christmas sweaters become a thing in the 1980s thanks to the Clark Huxtable sitcom character played by Bill Cosby in The Cosby Show and Chevy Chase's Clark Griswald character in Christmas Vacation?

Or were they really jump-started by those folks in Vancouver in 2002 where the phrase was trademarked and some really awful attire was celebrated at parties.

Or should we go all the way back to the 1950s to the so-called Jingle Bell sweaters with clothing items that were supposed to be really nice — but generally really weren't.

In any case, during the depths of the pandemic, Megan Larche Dominick (formerly the Associate Artistic Director and Director of New Work at Theatre Under the Stars — who is now based in Thailand) and TUTS Artistic Director Dan Knechtges had a meeting of the minds and decided what the world needed was a musical involving these beloved/loathed articles of clothing.

They traded ideas back and forth, what Dominick calls "noodling around" and quickly decided that this should be a musical. "That's the language we speak most fluently," she says. The result was The Ugly Xmas Sweater Musical now on stage at the Hobby Center courtesy of TUTS. Knechtges is also serving as director and choreographer.

The cast includes Julia Krohn as “Cheryl,” Brooke Wilson as “Olga,” Kevin Cooney as “Charlie,” Nicolas Garza as “Doug/Niles” and Kiara Caridad as “Kelli.

Rest assured, the musical is more than a fashion parade of ugly sweaters. "We arrive at the Christmas party and the audience are also the employees that are attending the Christmas party. We discover very quickly that the boss has sold the company to this German conglomerate and they're all losing their jobs at Christmas," Dominick explains.

"And now through a series of hijinks, the most senior person in charge is the HR director and she becomes our heroine. And we learn she has a secret past in fashion design and she has this idea that since they're a uniform company, so they make clothes, what if they made ugly Christmas sweaters? So they have to pitch it to the German executive who arrives to save the company."

To save the company in a 90-minute one act, audience members are called upon to pitch in. "The audience then becomes the models. They get up on stage. They walk a runway. They sing along to help us. We interview them for inspiration about their sweaters. We're all a team. We all have to save the day.  And of course there's a happy ending because it's a Christmas show."

Dominick was able to return to Houston a number of times, including last summer to sit in on a reading with Knechtges. "We realized how much work we still needed to do," she says, laughing. In fact, she was still sending script changes to the cast this week.

Despite both Knechtges and Dominick each having more than 20 years experience in all aspects of theater, Dominick says both of them found TUTS to be the most corporate place they had ever worked at. "They had an HR director. What is ADP? What is a senior leadership team?  These were not phrases and methodologies that I had ever participated in and we found a lot of humor in the mashup of art and theater with some of the corporate structure," she says.

"And that really was the genesis idea. We found it funny." And they decided it needed to be up on the stage.

Asked how this ties in to Christmas, Dominick quickly responded "Well, we're both obsessed with Christmas, What is more feel good than Christmas? It's a time of  year we allow ourselves to be childlike. Everyone has a bit of a pep in their step and a little bit of a gentler heart to everyone around you.

"We didn’t want to write a show that was mean or sarcastic or full of people behaving badly. I love that kind of humor if I'm honest but  I don’t want to write that show. I want to write something where everyone is positive and we can do that without being corny. We can still be smart and quippy and silly and fast and playful but we don’t have to be unkind."

Why the ugly sweater part?

"It's just a cute idea, right? Who doesn't love an ugly Christmas sweater? That's the part that was Dan's original idea." Then they had to work out how the sweater part becomes the story, she says. They took inspiration from shows like Project Runway and  RuPaul's Drag Race.

Asked what she think it takes to get an audience to a new show like this, Dominick says:.

"We don’t want to compete with A Christmas Carol, we want to complement it. I think that there needs to be a full spectrum of holiday material. You want to see something really heartfelt and classic , that's what A Christmas Carol gives you. I have to watch It's a Wonderful Life. But my other favorite Christmas movie is Scrooged.

'I think the special sauce that makes our show unique is the audience participation. Dan has a masterful hand on is how to incorporate that element [audience participation] into the show." (She stressed, however, that no one who doesn't want to get up on stage will be forced to participate or made fun of in anyway.)

"I think what ours presents is a chance to be playful and whimsical and silly, but hopefully under a structure. I hope by creating a show that is structured in a more corporate setting, we're making an appeal to a broader group of people.

"We're trying to touch on things that most people get. Most people have experienced a mean boss or an older co-worker or a younger daughter who won't get out of the house and get their own job. We want to create something with everyman appeal without talking down to anyone or diminishing anyone's experience."

Performances continue through December 24 at 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; 7:30 p.m. December 8 and 12 and December 16, 22 and 23; and 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For more information, call  713-558-8801 or visit $40-$69.
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
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