Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Jenni Carroll Photography.
There is no great dearth of holiday shows this year in Chicago. With several still to open, a comprehensive list would easily reach double digits. And this week, Pride Films and Plays opens two more, one at each of its two theatres at the Pride Arts Center. The first one, a world premiere, is a spiritual sequel of sorts to the beloved 1960s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” claymation special that nearly everyone in America must have seen by now, or at least to the memorable segment set on the Island of Misfit Toys. America’s Best Outcast Toy postulates a world in which the toys rescued by Rudolph and his dentist-elf friend Hermie have become national celebrities that are now being celebrated in the traditional American way by being featured in a television reality show. As opportunities for sheer campy fun go, this is a pretty great conceit; unfortunately, the play—which is often undeniably entertaining—gets weighed down by its focus on the reality show format instead of the stories of the toys themselves.
The reality show, as well as the Donterrio Johnson-directed play, stars Patrick Regner as Schmermie, the copyright-free version of the elf-dentist who has never actually followed his dream but instead has been caught up in the American star-making machine and is a well-known TV personality. Regner is all smarm as this former misfit who has hit the big time, a perfect bit of casting for the role of the host. His Schmermie is an over-preened, over-packaged, over-glossed character who has lost his soul somewhere along the way and treats the toys/contestants and even the tech crew like his inferiors. Rudolph would not even recognize him, and that’s the point.
As the toys, a very talented eight-member ensemble has a joyful time playing the now-famous misfits (who have also been altered for copyright reasons). Danny Ackman plays Spotty, the stuffed elephant who is proud of his purple spots (though they have been slightly “enhanced”). Tyler DeLoatch is Beary, the thick-coated winged bear (in both the animal and gay usages of the word). He also has a lot of fun as one of the judges of the contest. Anna Blanchard is utterly adorable as Squeak the mouse, the soft-spoken stuffie who harbors one of the show’s biggest surprises. Josh Kemper plays Bucky, the very sympathetic (and lonely) cowboy who rides an ostrich (which may well explain the lonely part). Hayley Kinsler adds a large dose of vocally strident feminism to the mix as a “Jackie-in-the-box” who demands a lot from her world. Julia Rowley has the greatest growth arc here, ingratiating herself to the audience as a rag doll with very low self-esteem. Jasmine Lacy Young does double-duty as a cat named Kitty and a judge who can’t really decide anything. And Riley Smith probably has more fun than anyone else in the cast as he plays not only a toy called “Fishbird” that is what its name implies but a whole cadre of judges and mentors as well.
The whole thing takes place on an Evan Frank set that does its best to evoke one of those reality-show stages that we see on so many programs. The Cindy O’Connor book—music and lyrics by Larry Todd Cousineau— pokes fun at a number of specific shows. However, what is supposed to be a double parody of “Rudolph” and reality programs ends up leaning far too hard on the latter, and the clichés we associate with reality shows like contests, side monologues by contestants, harsh judgments, in-fighting, last-minute surprises, etc. take up far too much time as the 90-minute show squeezes in scattershot parodies of just about every kind of stage-based reality show from cooking to dancing to singing to drag to fashion design…and the judges we know from them. And many of the songs that accompany those bits—choreographed cleverly by Johnson—are a lot of fun but don’t take as much opportunity as they might to develop the toys’ characters, which are mostly left to a few “backstage” moments and those monologues. Ultimately, there just isn’t enough of the camp here that is derived from the characters, and there is too much derived from the format, which too quickly becomes repetitive and flat.
America’s Best Outcast Toy is a silly, fun addition to the very crowded Chicago Christmas play field, but it isn’t one of the best. If you need a show about toys, I’d suggest The Steadfast Tin Soldier at Lookingglass or either of the two versions of The Nutcracker that are currently playing. And then, of course, there is the other new musical about toys, The Land of Forgotten Toys, which I will review next week. If you are a toy in Chicago, the 2019 Year of Chicago Theatre is coming to an end with you in mind. Now go play.
America’s Best Outcast Toy is now playing at the PrideArts Center’s Broadway Theatre, 4139 N. Broadway, Chicago, IL, until Jan 12. The show runs approximately ninety minutes; there is no intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.