- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 2, 2000

Once again, Catherine Flye's "Christmas at the Old Bull and Bush" fails to disappoint.

Seven enormously talented actors deliver songs and sketches in the atmosphere of an English pub at the Arena Stage's Old Vat Theater. The British-born Miss Flye, who directed the Interact Theatre Company production, arranges the material in a such a way that belly laughs can follow a sad, poignant song about World War I.

The Old Vat Theater set, executed marvelously by Carl F. Gudenius, evokes a snug holiday feeling with two bars on each side of the stage. Back of center stage is a maroon brocade curtain, though the actors seem to burst out from all sorts of places.

During the breaks between acts, the bars serve traditional British fare such as sausage rolls, potato crisps, mulled wine and chocolate cake.

But the big feast remains on the stage. The show seems to have more dancing than in its previous three years. Choreographer Linda Garner Miller allows for the whirling of a waltz on what is a pretty small stage. The stage's closeness to the audience enables the cast to dance with audience members; 12 songs are accompanied with song sheets for audience participation, and in a recent performance, one gentleman was called up to the stage for an "A Christmas Carol" sketch. With a crutch jammed under his arm and wearing a boy's cap, he handled the role of Tiny Tim miraculously well.

Central to the action are Mr. Chairman, the show's master of ceremonies, and accompanist Maestro Lily Laguna (Lisa Gibbs Smith). Snappy in his swallowtail morning tuxedo and top hat, R. Scott Williams handles the chore with enthusiastic aplomb.

It's the first year for him in this role, and he handles it as if it were his own. His comic timing is impeccable, even when the jokes are deliciously awful. ("Do your best and laugh at the jokes," Mr. Chairman says ebulliently.)

Miss Flye, familiar to Interact productions such as "Shirley Valentine" and "George — Don't Do That," injects her bubbly enthusiasm into each character.

Some of the numbers are familiar — "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "The Christmas Song" and "Danny Boy" — while others are not, such as "Please Don't Touch My Plums" and "Spotted Dick." As you can imagine, many of the songs have bawdy vaudeville double-entendres, which can get tiresome.

Yet the talent keeps the show fresh, and Miss Flye uses each cast member's talent. Rebecca Davis and Karen Paone shine with operatic polish. Margie Tompros reprises the role of the buxom Miss Bessie Bellwood for the third year. (Most of the cast members are making return appearances.) The talented Miss Tompros not only amused the audience early on with her memorable animal sounds ("No animals were harmed during that number," Mr. Chairman says) but from behind the bar, she brought several fowl puppets to Muppet-like life.

Also returning is the bouncy Timothy R. King as Mr. Charles Archibald Potts. Wide-eyed, bow-tied and possessing a toothy grin and fast feet, Mr. King zips along in "All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor."

What's interesting is how Miss Flye uses her audience. She invites a rousing competition between halves of the audience over who can sing loudest. One side sings "Pack Up Your Troubles" and "It's a Long Way to Tipperary." Then she gets tenor Bob McDonald to croon "Letter From the Trenches," which tells of a Christmas truce between English and German troops in a competition on a different, global scale. Mr. McDonald still can stop a show with a too-familiar tune, "Danny Boy."

He also has a clever way of mocking the 1930s Nelson Eddy-like crooner. Miss Flye imaginatively updates the Gilbert and Sullivan ditty "The List" by having Mr. McDonald's Santa Claus sing about his own list of good and bad children.

{*}{*}{*}1/2WHAT: "Christmas at the Old Bull and Bush"WHERE: Interact Theatre Company, the Old Vat Theater, Arena Stage, Sixth Street and Maine Avenue SWWHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, through Jan. 7. (No performances Dec. 5 and 24, but additional performances at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 17 and 2 p.m. Dec. 22.)RUNNING TIME: 21/2 hoursTICKETS: $25 to $30PHONE: 703/218-6500

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