Review: Musical "An Axemas Story" Delivers Sharply Hewn Fun

An Axemas Story

Music, etc. by Anthony De Angelis

Lyrics, etc. by Patrick Spencer

Book, etc. by Charlie O'Leary

Music direction by Sara Linger

Associate conducting by Buck McDaniel

Direction and choreography by Mackenna Goodrich

Presented by Cartwheels Theatrical at The Players Theatre

115 MacDougal St, Manhattan, NYC

November 30-December 17, 2023

Isabel Julazadeh and John Jeffords. Photo by EJ DeCoske
When An Axemas Story calls itself a "sappy" musical, it refers not to holiday schmaltz, which the show actively satirizes, but rather to the spilling of vital fluids as the non-deciduous residents of Tree Town meet their fates at the edge of a blade. This 1980s-slasher-inspired story of sentient trees on a Christmas tree farm is perfect for the kind of person who seeks out appropriately themed horror films for major holidays, enjoys self-aware wordplay (Axemas Story features a veritable forest of tree-related puns), or just likes a wildly entertaining time at the theater. If any of that sounds like you, you can gift yourself (and/or others) with a trip to Tree Town during An Axemas Story's return engagement, running through December 17th, and upgrading to a VIP ticket adds on a show sweater emblazoned with "Merry Axemas." a drink, and a signed program.
Chris Trombetta, Brooke Searcy, Alex Canty, Isabel Julazadeh, Jillian Soares, RJ Christian, Atticus Shaindlin, John Jeffords, & Cat Greenfield. Photo by EJ DeCoske.
An Axemas Story takes the form of a musical play-within-a-play that recounts the "Reckoning" that occurred in Tree Town in the 1980s, a performance put on in the frame narrative by a tree known as Grandpa (John Jeffords) who co-opts his granddaughter Small Paulette (Isabel Julazadeh) from unwilling spectator to unwilling actor. Her objections overcome, Small Paulette takes on the role of Noel, an atheist among what we learn very early on is a community of staunchly Christian evergreens. Small Paul (Chris Trombetta) is similarly an outsider, mocked by trees such as Noel's brother, Buck (Alex Canty) - a bully in the 80s-film mode - for being, as his name suggests, small. Noel and Buck's avowedly monogamous parents are Mayor Maple (RJ Christian), who introduces himself to us as "the government," and Mrs. Frasier (Charissa Bertels, who displays some impressive high kicks), a teacher (and more) at the local school who is in charge of putting on the Christmas pageant within the musical-within-a-musical. The pageant is the most important annual event in the community, whose trees are pruned every Sunday by Farmer Todd (John Jeffords) to make sure that they conform to certain beauty standards, but as it gets closer, one missing tree becomes many, with students such as Chuck (Atticus Shaindlin) and Fern (Cat Greenfield) joining the growing ranks of the vanished. (Luckily for us, the very funny Shaindlin and Greenfield soon return as definitely different trees.). One of those in danger is Small Paul's crush, the aptly named Virginia (Brooke Searcy), who echoes the Final Girl type - though with a caveat that she announces early on; and Small Paul and Noel emerge as the best hope for discovering what is happening…and how not to end up as stumps.
Brooke Searcy and Chris Trombetta. Photo by EJ DeCoske.
Unlike Noel and Small Paul, the rest of the trees turn out to be happy to scapegoat whoever seems most different, part of the show's pattern of humorously barbed commentary on religious repression and hypocrisy, consumer capitalism (the true meaning of Christmas?), the whitewashing involved in 80s nostalgia, narcissism, and more (even if the Christmas tree industry is arguably sustainable, it's far from the most ecologically friendly use of land and resources in support of what, if we take a step back, is an admittedly odd practice that requires and disposes of millions of trees each year). An Axemas Story climaxes with one last gleeful subversion of tropes, and the final song cheekily lists a number of possible morals while denying that the play has one. The production boasts some pleasingly splattery moments, and there are as many 80s references as puns, adding extra fun for those who catch them, as well as a good dose of metatheatrical comedy. The cast is marvelous, with almost everyone playing multiple roles, including puppeteering some talking woodland critters. Julazadeh is a standout as both Noel and Small Paulette, Trombetta plays protagonist Small Paul's gee-whiz naivete perfectly on the edge of parody, and Jeffords's Grandpa would be right at home in (a funnier version of) an 80s Stephen King adaptation. The songs, ranging from rock- or synth-inflected numbers to ballads, are both hilarious and memorable, terrifically complemented by Mackenna Goodrich's expressive and entertaining choreography. Now, to properly celebrate the holidays, we just need a cast recording.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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