Bethlehem Press

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CONTRIBUTED PHOTOFrom left: Emma Chong, Mary Wright, Padra Crisafulli (Penguin suit), Raven Dailey and Julia Elberfeld in the “Land Ho!” Christmas Pirates’ sketch, “Christmas City Follies XVI,” through Dec. 20, Touchstone Theatre, Bethlehem. CONTRIBUTED PHOTOFrom left: Emma Chong, Mary Wright, Padra Crisafulli (Penguin suit), Raven Dailey and Julia Elberfeld in the “Land Ho!” Christmas Pirates’ sketch, “Christmas City Follies XVI,” through Dec. 20, Touchstone Theatre, Bethlehem.

Theater Review: A ‘Follies’ we will go for Touchstone fun

Friday, December 11, 2015 by Paul Willistein pwillistein@tnonline.com in Focus

Among signs the Christmas season is upon you: Christmas decorations and items before Halloween in supermarkets and stores, Burl Ives singing “A Holly Jolly Christmas” on all-holiday music radio stations and Touchstone Theatre’s “Christmas City Follies.”

Touchstone has the timing, and some might say the good sense, to wait until after Thanksiving to stage “Follies,” this year in its 16th annual production. The Touchstone Ensemble, which created and performs “Follies,” directed by Touchstone Theatre Artistic Director Jp Jordan, doesn’t lack the talent nor temerity to tackle the overcommercialization of Christmas, with good humor, of course.

“Follies” is jolly in the best sense of the Christmas season, almost giddy in its enthusiasm while frequently out-loud laughter hilarious, as well as insightful, in its skewering of holiday shibboleths even as it explores and celebrates the reason for the season.

Jordan and his merry band of thespians always seem to keep it fresh and “Christmas City Follies XVI” (the Superbowl of Lehigh Valley Christmas season shows) is no exception, from the opening “‘Til The Season Comes Round Again,” which sends up the season’s marketing ploys, and segues seamlessly as the huge patchwork-quilt curtain parts to reveal “Jug Band Dreidel.” Soon, “The Old Guy” (Touchstone co-founder Bill George) shambles onstage with his cart of tricks.

Among the other very funny 11 sketches in Act 1: “Black Friday Training,” a trenchant take on what you need to do to survive the holiday shopping wars; “Santa Sings The ... ,” a brilliant spoof of perennial purveyors of Christmas albums; “Forgotten Ornaments,” a touching and lovely perspective, and “NORAD” (Emma Chong in full military uniform), which purports to reveal the original of the Santa sleigh tracking device.

Act 2 in the approximate two and one-half hour show (including intermission) opens with the latest iteration of the “Shopping Cart Ballet,” always an anticipated treat, this time to the music of “Footloose.” Mary Wright steps out of character for “La Befana,” with a straighforward and beautiful retelling of an Italian folk tale, contrasting nicely with all the tomfoolery surrounding it. Also, among the nine sketches is the return of the Christmas Pirates in “Land Ho!” which is “arghh”-uably one of the show’s funniest pieces.

There are many more “Follies” delights, but surprises in character, subject and song are always one of the great features of the show, so we won’t play spoiler here.

Speaking of songs, the 2015 edition is particularly tuneful, thanks to the music direction and performance of Kevin O’Boyle, who sings in a lovely voice and is an excellent and versatile musician. Emma Chong is outstanding in a graceful flute solo version of “What Child Is This” that neatly quotes from Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.”

The cast includes Touchstone Apprentices Raven Dailey and Julia Elberfeld and Touchstone Intern Padra Crisafulli. Each brings a particular zest and freshness to characters as well as spot-on harmonies to the songs, including “Silent Night.”

Costumes and props by Lisa Jordan, Touchstone Theatre Managing Director, and the cast, are a wonderful combination of brilliant stagecraft and homespun fun. The Set Design by Jp Jordan and Lighting Design by Emma Chong make the intimate theater even more so.

In addition to the through-line of The Old Guy, who is so flummoxed with the holiday season that he wants a “Christmas-Free Zone,” there’s Little Red (Mary Wright), who’s in a perpetual dither for an altogether other reason, revealed at the very end of “Follies,” and all wrapped up neatly with a holiday bow, as Jp Jordan promised for the show.

Touchstone Theatre’s “Christmas City Follies XVI” is a satisfying mix of the familiar and new, just like the Christmas season. Don’t leave Christmas without it.

“Christmas City Follies XVI,” 8 p.m. Dec. 10 - 12, 17 - 19; 2 p.m. Dec. 13, 19, 20, Touchstone Theatre, 321 E. Fourth St., Bethlehem. In the Touchstone Gallery: “Seeing Surfaces And Beyond: Paintings And Drawings” by George K. Shortess. Tickets: touchstone.org, 610-867-1689. On Thursdays, Touchstone offers a pay-what-you-will ticket option at the door.