ONSTAGE REVIEW: “Christmas Spirit” a darkly charming alternative to standard holiday…

first_img“The Christmas Spirit” runs through Dec. 21, the John Hand Theatre, Colorado Free University, 7653 E. 1st Place, Lowry. Tickets start at $20. Information: 303-562-3232 or firehousetheatercompany.com. Tinsel, egg nog and fancy gifts have a way of warming the hearts of even the most bitter and disagreeable Scrooges at Christmas time.In Frederick Stroppel’s dark comedy “The Christmas Spirit,” even the Grim Reaper can’t escape the lure and promise of the holiday season. The Dickensian ideal of family, friends and a big roast goose has charmed Death to the point that he’s distracted from his job. The quaint ideal of a perfect Christmas makes the Grim Reaper forget his duty as the collector of souls and focus instead on wearing the rind kind of sweater and bringing the right kind of gifts to a holiday party.The premise is admittedly macabre and surreal, and the current production of “The Christmas Spirit” at the John Hand Theatre faces plenty of challenges in realizing the comedy’s full potential. A dark piece about Death coming to dinner poses technical challenges, and the tiny theater’s tight confines could easily turn into a roadblock.But the intimate scope of the place never gets in the way of finding the heart of this charming show. Considering the admirable track record of the John Hand’s home troupes, it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that director Clint Heyn and a strong cast bring Stroppel’s twisted holiday cheer to life in a venue of less than 80 seats.Even so, the professionalism and vibrancy of this show is impressive from the very start. Strong and subtle performances carry the show through an unlikely premise, and the Firehouse Theatre Company shows once again that the small size of the theater is no limitation. In a theater scene crowded with typical holiday fare, “The Christmas Spirit” stands out as truly unique and unexpected storytelling.The intrigue kicks off when Julia Dowling (Emma Messenger) wakes up late at night on Christmas Eve to find an uninvited Visitor (Jeff Jesmer) prowling around her living room. The Visitor, it turns out, is Death. He’s come for Julia’s soul. There’s no talking him out of his mission.Except, there is. Julia’s pleas for a literal stay of execution starts carrying weight when the talk turns to Christmas. Dowling promises a Christmas feast for the next night. She insists that the celebration will include roast goose, gifts, family and all of the staples of greeting card celebration.That wins over the visitor. He’s heard about the charm of a traditional Christmas from Charles Dickens himself. He’s always wanted to take part in a true Christmas celebration. He leaves and promises to return for Christmas dinner the following evening.Julia finds herself pressed to organize a Christmas celebration straight out of “It’s A Wonderful Life.” She makes hasty invitations to her sister and her brother-in-law (Sarah MacMillan and Greg West), as well as her closeted son Paul(Doug Tisdale) and a priest, Father John Brennan (Jim Landis). She makes her daughter Beth (Jean Schuman) hunt down a goose and other staples for the perfect meal.When Death arrives the next night with a guest in tow (a recent suicide victim played by Kristjan Jesmer), Julia’s made every effort to recreate the ideal holiday and stave off her doom.Emma Messenger and Jeff Jesmer are the highlights of the comedy here, and they take on the demands of their roles with a compelling energy. Jesmer manages to balance the duties of being a wide-eyed innocent and the grim harbinger of doom; Dowling’s frenzied attempts to avoid death are hilarious at first, and moving by the end of the show. The two leads find support in an able ensemble. MacMillan and West offer hilarious moments as old grumps, Schuman is endearing as Julia’s daughter and Father Brennan’s unwitting discussions with the Grim Reaper are magical.The plot may be a very transparent take on the “Death Takes a Holiday” motif, but Stroppel’s approach to the idea of Death taking human form is plenty original. That originality depends a lot on timing and nuance, and the Firehouse production has plenty, despite the small scale of the space. THREE STARS OUT OF FOURlast_img