In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

Lawrence J. Lukasavageis just one of the characters in in "The Last Holiday Punch." (PHOTO: Dale Gutzman)

Off the Wall's "The Last Holiday Punch" is another marvel for Gutzman

The oddest collection of out of work elves are lining up for an audition to be hired into jobs at Santa's workshop and, true to the spirit, they have a big production number.

It's sung to the tune of "I Hope I Get It," the stirring song from "A Chorus Line" in which dancers sing about their driving desires and squished self-confidence. It's a wonderful Broadway number and the elves give it it's due.

It's all part of the annual extravaganza "Holiday Punch," staged for 40 years by Dale Gutzman and it once again confirms that he is the ultimate showman and impresario in all of Milwaukee.

Forty years ago Skylight Music Theatre asked Gutzman to create an alternative holiday show that had some bite to it. He got together with his friend, James Valcq, who is now the co-Artistic Director at Third Avenue Playhouse in Door County.

"In those 40 years I've produced it at Skylight, Vogel Hall, colleges, bars and most recently here, at our little theater," Gutzman said, explaining that this was going to be the last year he produces the show.

Simply put this is the funniest and warmest two hours in Milwaukee theater this holiday season. If you want to laugh, and who doesn't this time of year, steer yourself to his tiny Off the Wall Theatre, on Wells St. that sits in the shadow of the regal Milwaukee Rep.

On an annual basis Gutzman has taken the events of the past year, mixed them with holiday myth and magic, shaken and stirred the whole thing and watched it spill out onto a stage for the joy and delight of full houses at each performance.

It's difficult to explain just how funny this whole thing is, but it's not just funny.

Gutzman is the consummate showman and he has impeccable timing. Just when the audience seems to need a break to catch its breath from the near constant laughter that's gripped them, he has Lawrence J. Lukasavage, all 300 or so pounds of him, stand quietly, dressed in a tux and a Santa hat, and softly sing and growl a tender "Count Your Blessings." It's a touching moment.

You could hear a pin drop in the audience as all of us quietly watched this living dichotomy tug at our heartstrings. But so that nobody got too relaxed, the song was followed immediately by a scene in which Jeremy Welter played a stage manager upset with his department store Santa, played with gusto by Gutzman who was apparently drinking on the job and who answered every charge with a line from Shakespeare.

Jeremy: The complaints we've had against you…here…here…from Mothers, from children…here's one from Mrs. Beatrice Clucks.

Dale: "Frailty, thy name is woman.."

Jeremy: She says you pushed her dear little son off your lap and onto the floor. You called him a "great fat baby!"

Dale: "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. "

Jeremy: You terrified him so much, he urinated in his pants and on your lap!

Dale: 'Yet, here's a spot! Out…out damned spot

It's called the Shakespeare Santa and we are off and running again.

Nine actors join Gutzman on this journey along with keyboardist Clint Peterson and drummer Colin O'Day. It's a cast of remarkable versatility and they all show the obvious joy of doing this work.

One of my Milwaukee favorites, David Flores, plays Jesus, a nun, a cat (from a remake of the Broadway musical), one of the elves, an addled old man and one of the best versions of "When You Wish Upon A Star" I have ever heard. He plays it straight during the song and the moving lights truly gave me a feeling of being in the middle of some friendly solar system.

The rest of the actors all had moments that shone like the star of Bethlehem on the assembled masses.

Gutzman worked the audience like the savvy professional he is, Introducing characters, telling stories, making sure everyone got their moments. Like Maura Atwood, a striking redhead who has Irish draped all over her. Gutzman gave her a song to the classic "What I Did For Love," also from "Chorus Line."

Kiss the sleigh goodbye
The presents and the reindeer

Wish me a merry Christmas too
But I can't regret what I did for Claus,
What I did for Claus.
Look my eyes are dry,
That's maybe from the weather
Or perhaps I've got the flu
And I won't forget, what I did for Claus
What I did for Claus.
Gone, Claus is never gone
As we travel on
Folks say there's no Santa
Kiss the Sleigh goodbye,
I'm heading south tomorrow
We did what we had to do
Won't forget, won't regret
What I did for Claus."

At the end of the show Gutzman explained to the audience why this is the last of his holiday productions. He's older now and it takes a lot of work and energy to do this. The world has changed around him and he makes it almost sound as if he has doubts that he can pull this off again.

I'm a betting man, though, and I'd be willing to put a few dollars on the side that says, when the snow is nigh and the season approaches, he will find the lure of the performance too strong and will go back to the mat, one more time.

At least I, and hundreds of other people, hope he will.

"The Last Holiday Punch" runs through Dec. 31 and information on tickets and showtimes can be found here.


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