I will freely admit I was underdressed when I saw Stage West’s production of The Naughty List. The show takes place on the mall of Texas Wesleyan University, and even though I’d been advised that the temperature would be 48 degrees on the night in question, I was stupidly wearing just a hoodie for protection when I should have bundled up in something heavier. It was agony every time a gust of wind cut through me, and the hot chocolate I bought from the concession stand (while delicious) didn’t help much.
Yet even while I was losing the feeling in my fingers, I recognized that this is close to the best live theater show we’re going to get in our present circumstances. This silent dance show tells an origin story for Krampus, the demon out of Central European folklore who punishes naughty children on Christmas. The performers are wearing masks (the kind you and I wear to the supermarket, not the theatrical kind), the lawn seats are placed at a comfortable remove from one another, and the lack of dialogue means that you don’t have to worry about voices carrying in the open air. Plus, if you don’t feel like braving the December cold, Stage West is now offering the play on their streaming platform, so you can take in the holiday show in the heated comfort of your own home.
The story begins with St. Nicholas (Canali Miller) and Krampus (Brayden Raqueño) conceived at opposite ends of the earth as essential parts of each other, but the residents of the village where this takes place love Nick, who brings toys and good cheer, while they shun the strange demon with the horns. The narration by Stage West mainstay Garret Storms is written in Seussian rhyming couplets, and I’m afraid the writing is repetitive and the reading over the PA system is indifferent. (You really need a drummer’s sense of rhythm to stay on point with couplets.) Nor does the choreography by Danielle Georgiou, who conceived the show along with Storms, do a great deal to advance the story in terms of incident or character motivation.
As a musical show, however, I can’t find a weak link among the five dancers in the cast. (The others are Rai Barnard, Amber Marie Flores, and Lauren Kravitz.) The numbers are tightly choreographed in themselves and well use the space on the steps in front of the campus library. Best of all, the songs that they’re set to mostly avoid the chestnuts that batter our ears every Yuletide season. They are mostly taken from the big band and early rock eras, though some newer ones like JD McPherson’s “Holly, Carol, Candy & Joy” are mixed in. I much appreciated hearing a bunch of Christmas songs that I hadn’t heard before, like Frankie Carle and Marjorie Hughes’ “Little Jack Frost Get Lost” and Glenn Crytzer’s “The Krampus.” My Brightest Diamond’s version of “Nature Boy” is a non-Christmas song that works quite well in this setting, and Tom Lehrer’s sour “A Christmas Carol” is always welcome. Even the music playing before the show contains Coral Bells’ “Krampus,” which is now on my Spotify rotation. It does help fight the cold when you’re rocking back in your seat to the music. I’d happily sit through this again rather than another production of The Nutcracker. In response to the hostile conditions for live theater, Stage West has responded by staging something new that would not work as well in a regular auditorium. If other theater troupes can respond as creatively to the pandemic, live theater will truly live again in our parts.