When I reviewed The Rep's holiday revue Smackdown for the Christmas Crown at its debut performance last year, I gave it the benefit of the doubt as a loud singing-and-dancing entertainment strung together with a silly script.
In this year's revival of the show, the production is tighter, and the dancing is great. But upon second hearing, the weak play around which all this is framed is a threadbare collection of unfunny jokes, random non sequiturs and stereotyped "hick" Kentucky characters.
The plot in the script by Robyn Peterman-Zahn, who also directs, concerns two 1950s-style singing groups, the Bobbies and the Billies. They are competing in a holiday sing-off emceed by a low-life announcer (played by Mike Van Zant) and constantly interrupted by a guy who wants desperately to be in a Christmas pageant, One-Man-Show-Christmas-Show-Man, performed by film and TV actor and Lexington resident Steve Zahn.
In Van Zant's and Zahn's choice to play these one-dimensional characters as manic, they fail to contrast with each other or with the Bobbies and Billies in tone, mood or volume. Zahn's part in particular offers no character development or star turn, so the performance comes off like a celebrity doing some Christmas shtick in a community theater pageant.
The singing itself is good, with effective contributions by Tegan Hanks, Caroline Keegan, Katie Owens, Kurtis Brown, Evan Pulliam, Colton Ryan and Ron Wilbur. Pulliam and Haley Callahan Fish have a sweet little dance number in which they shine.
The musical arrangements are of mixed caliber. Several are borrowed from another '50s-style Christmas revue, the hokey Plaid Tidings, and a couple of the songs don't even have to do with Christmas. Whether the voicing of the close harmonies or the amplification is to blame, distinguishing the melody in the familiar songs was frequently difficult during Friday's opening performance.
The three-piece combo of bass, drums and keyboard — played by Jack Shields, Colin Hill and musical director Brock Terry — do a fine job, but their sound was too small to supplement all the singers and dancers in the large, boxy auditorium of the Lyric Theatre.
Diana Evans Pulliam's well-rendered costumes are easily the show's classiest production element. But her set and the crude lighting scheme by Tony Hardin are hard on the eyes.
The best parts of Smackdown are the dance numbers, choreographed by Evans Pulliam in a wholesome Rockettes style. Her large corps of dancers show excellent precision in The March of the Wooden Soldiers and steal the show with a fun, vibrant routine to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
That illustrates the problem with Smackdown: It is not so much a holiday musical as a glorified dance recital. The dance parts are great, but the script and uneven musical performances detract from the evening's entertainment.
Next year, The Rep might consider choosing fresh arrangements of holiday songs, mounting a show centered on Evans Pulliam's fabulous high-stepping choreography and her dozens of winsomely smiling dancers, and leaving Smackdown behind.
Tedrin Blair Lindsay is a musician, theater artist and lecturer at the University of Kentucky.