Uh-Oh holy night 

Georgia Ensemble Theatre offers Fulghum follow-up with Christmas

SOME THINGS YOU NEED to know you can't learn in kindergarten. For instance, if you're the director of a theater company, it takes time to identify the tastes of your audience. Robert Farley of the Georgia Ensemble Theatre seems to have gotten a fix on his subscribers' likes. Last July's Everything I Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten was the biggest hit of the previous season.

But Kindergarten had yet to be staged when Farley, making a leap of faith, scheduled the Southeastern premiere of Uh-Oh, Here Comes Christmas!, a follow-up work also based on the best-selling writings of Robert Fulghum. Fans of the first will enjoy the second, which also will attract holiday theater-goers. Uh-Oh proves a lesser work than the modestly entertaining Kindergarten, but is not without its charms.

Directing Uh-Oh, Farley re-enlists three members of Kindergarten's ensemble -- Carol Mitchell-Leon, Ted Manson and David Kleist -- while adding Meredith Gordon and Michelle Sacco Robertson to the bill. Throughout the evening, the actors take on different guises that generally are based on Fulghum's own narrative voice, and tell tales either about the holidays or themes related to them, like food or family. Generally, the stories have the size and shape of folksy sermonettes or essays from National Public Radio, althoughh a couple are insubstantial.

Uh-Oh was adapted by Ernest Zulia and David Caldwell, and the material covers similar episodes, such as anecdotes set at churches or weddings, the mishaps of children or the little rituals that link generations. Here, for instance, a father passes to his son the tradition of ringing the bell for Salvation Army donations. Several stories depict organized festivities that go awry, including a children's pageant with an uncooperative mule and a church reading with an underequipped juggler.

One of the unifying themes is that Christmas "is just real life, only a lot more of it at once." Mitchell-Leon has some amusing moments expressing alienation from and exasperation over the inevitable trappings of the holidays, and at times makes faces worthy of the Grinch himself. In one vignette, she plays a wife with no patience for potted poinsettias as a holiday gift, while Manson's deadpan husband doesn't want to see the plant die or destroyed. (Call it poinseparation anxiety.) Telling the story in parts, each time Mitchell-Leon returns to the stage, she's lugging a progressively larger poinsettia, a pleasing variant on an old vaudeville gag.

Manson's folksy, avuncular manner again serves him well, especially in a tribute to the wish for stillness at the holidays. Gordon and Robertson don't get as many of the show's best lines, but Robertson can evocatively suggest a harried soccer mom, while Gordon, recounting a "Valentine" to a tree, tells a pleasant story (and, on opening night, improvises an amusing response to a nose-blowing attendee).

A relative newcomer to the Atlanta area, Kleist emerged as the scene-stealer of Kindergarten and is even more prominent here. A natural comic character player, Kleist's timing and body language remind me of Colin Mochrie of "Who's Line is it Anyway?" His rueful delivery can get a laugh from even a clever but neutral line like "I am not always aware that I am happy."

He's effectively touching in the story of a father who almost overlooks the value of a mundane-seeming gift from his daughter. But the evening's most entertaining moment is his near-Proustian rush when enthusing over Christmas leftovers and raiding the fridge. His midnight snacks include such improvised dishes as "a taco shell filled with almond paste" and a rack of Spam recipe from The White Trash Cookbook.

Kleist's reach only exceeds his grasp near the end when he tries to carry a tune about winter solstice and the anticipation of spring. Not counting "Silent Night" at the climax, the show has four or five original songs, and they're by far the evening's weakest link. Each act opens with a number inspired by A Christmas Carol, with Manson decked out as Scrooge and voicing discontent with the holidays and his own overuse. In general, the play might be Uh-Oh, but the songs are definitely uh-uh.

At least Act One's final story, about a wedding that unifies Detroit Catholics and Brooklyn Jews, ends with celebrational music (with accordion accompaniment) and dancing from each group that has nothing to do with the holidays, and makes a nice alternative to the seasonal songs. Some of the stories of Uh-Oh also can overemphasize holiday sweetness, talking about getting in touch with the inner "children who wait behind the door of our hearts," or something like that.

But like Kindergarten, Uh-Oh, Here Comes Christmas! offers a genial venue for some talented actors to ease into stories that might not be deep, but are generally thoughtful. Compared to the other potential holiday plays Georgia Ensemble Theatre could have staged, you can appreciate it as a gift.

Uh-Oh, Here Comes Christmas plays through Nov. 26 and Dec. 20-24 at the Georgia Ensemble Theatre, Roswell Municipal Auditorium, 950 Forrest St., Roswell, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. $17.50-27. 770-641-1260.

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