Theater review: The Santaland Diaries at 35below
After witnessing Tom Chalmers hilariously command the 35below space as Crumpet the Macy’s elf in The Santaland Diaries, it’s somewhat difficult to picture the intimate production upstairs on the Asheville Community Theatre stage, its home for multiple years.
In the two-row, black box room, mere feet — and occasionally less — from the performer, Chalmers’ interpretation of David Sedaris’ words (adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello) feels like it’s found its destined venue as actor and audience alike revel in the advantages of such a cozy environment.
Confidently directed by Josh Batenhorst, who guided Chalmers-as-elf from 2006-2011 and again in 2017, the show opens with a delightful projected video of the star’s history with the role catching up with him, and his comically “reluctant” agreement to once more don the candy cane tights and the rest of his festive wardrobe.
Another video finds a nefarious mallrat played by 35below/ACT stalwart Jason Williams encountering Crumpet on the latter’s work break and following him around a department store, but while Chalmers is a riot in these prerecorded clips, his live presence is fittingly even better.
The actor’s ability to entertain all on his own is a marvel to behold, as is the gymnastic act he pulls off with his voice, imitating Yankee women and men who cross Crumpet’s path, as well as the voices of children and foreigners with equal aplomb.
Perhaps inspired by such applause-earning moments as the costume change into his elf outfit, Chalmers took full advantage of the potential for audience interaction on opening night with a thankfully game crowd. He also conveniently had a cheerful gentleman with a decent-length white beard sitting in the center of the front row, off whom he threw various jokes regarding a certain seasonal VIP that the guest happily abided.
Though certain sections of Crumpet’s tenure in the weeks leading up to Christmas flow better than others, theatergoer smiles remain constant, even during the multiple blackout “scene changes” as humorous, unexpected holiday tunes accompany Chalmers as he moves to a new spot on the stage.
As for content concerns arising from the contractual obligation to perform the script as written, the handful of dated mid-’90s references play fairly well, landing somewhere between nostalgic and retro hip. For a play about an endangered species like department store elves, that tone feels appropriate and possibly intentional.
The Santaland Diaries runs Dec. 12-16. At press time, all but the 9:30 p.m. shows on Dec. 14 and 15 were sold out. For tickets, visit ashevilletheatre.org
(Photo courtesy of Asheville Community Theatre)