The "Big Rock Candy" schtick lives on.
About a year and a half after the District Theatre introduced its original bluegrass musical "Big Rock Candy Mountain," most of the gang is back in a holiday-themed version that again is equal parts amazing musicianship and cornball humor.
"Big Rock Candy Christmas" follows the escaped band of convicts from the original version as they arrive for a Christmas show in a "bigger" theater in Owensboro, Ky.
The "bigger" theater corresponds with the real-life move of the District Theatre from smaller facilities to the former Rock Island Argus offices this summer. Playwright-director Tristan Tapscott's script is peppered with inside jokes about his own theater, and a few lines and takes resembling other area companies as well.
Don't worry if you didn't catch the first or forget some of the details: It's recapped with a wink and a nod early on.
Our musical heroes (Mark Ruebling, Tom Vaccaro, Rocky Kampling and Kyle Jecklin) are back to perform a Christmas show, but must deal with a series of catastrophes, including an ill cast of "A Christmas Carol," stolen presents for the orphans and general chaos.
Brant Peitersen, who's landed three choice roles already this year, takes over as the town sheriff-turned-janitor at the theater, who is responsible for much of the goofy, good-natured charm of Tapscott's script, along with returnees Anthony Natarelli as the handyman and Chris Tracy as the manager. Mike Kelly, who played a nearly silent major in the original, returns and actually gets in some choice lines.
The comedic highlight of the holiday edition is Kelly, Natarelli and Aaron Lord, whose character is new to the show, acting out "The 12 Days of Christmas" — the theater-heavy influences show in "three French hens" and "nine ladies dancing."
The musical highlights are numerous, bluegrass versions of Christmas standards arranged by Danny White.
There's a folksy arrangement of "Go Tell It on the Mountain," a breakneck version of "Deck the Halls" Ruebling's slide-guitar mastery on "Silent Night" and the most unexpected enjoyment of all: a version of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" sung to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun," showcasing Tracy's deep voice, which has never really been in the forefront of a District musical.
Peitersen's voice gets a workout as well, in what's almost a homage to Jim Nabors — the "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C." star who talked in a down-home drawl and sang in a rich, accent-free baritone — in "Up on a Housetop."
Music director Doug Kutzli, a part of the original cast, was written out of the show because he's holding down two roles a few blocks away at Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's "A Wonderful Life," where Tapscott also has a supporting role. His absence is one of several sly mentions in the script, as well as blatant advertising for the return of The District's fourth annual "A Christmas Carol" next month.
Linda Ruebling's character of the town's mayor, jailed after her villainy in the original, returns for "Christmas," but her hairstyle and clothes, and even the way the lighting hits her, are so flattering it's difficult to sneer at her.
"Big Rock Candy Christmas" ups the original in its penchant for slapstick and fall-down gags. An unsung hero in all of this is Kampling, for his wide-eyed response to several of the lines and his character's look of a 1930s hobo.
At only about 75 minutes, the musical did leave me wanting more — maybe carrying out a mock "Christmas Carol" with the folks involved. At this holiday season, you can never have too much "Candy."