The following review is based on the Sunday, Dec. 10th performance of A Very Die Hard Christmas – The Stage Musical when Sean Cowhig portrayed the part of Hans Gruber in place of Jesse Merlin.
One oft-asked question bandied every holiday season is as follows: Is Die Hard a Christmas movie? If Theatre 40’s production of the briskly 60-minute A Very Die Hard Christmas – The Stage Musical is any indication, the answer is a resounding and rejoiceful yes!
Crafty director Sandro Monetti, who has infused Jeff Schell and The Habit’s musical parody with additional dialogue and panache, has, alongside producers Raymund King (also a performer), Brina Palenica, and Josey Wells, presented a fall-out-of-your-chair spoof. It’s the closest thing to Kate Pazakis’ Unauthorized Musical Parody Of… series, which regaled audiences for years at the now-bygone Rockwell Table & Stage on Vermont Avenue.
Jeff G. Rack’s set design — inclusive of a frosted Christmas tree, desk, cushioned chairs, and holiday décor — takes attendees back to the fictional Nakatomi Plaza, based on the Fox Plaza Building, coincidentally only a hop, skip, and quick jaunt from Theatre 40. Choreographer Hisato Masuyama indeed has the actors shimmying on stage, clad in loveably ‘80s fashion by Marianne Parker, singing Elizabeth Rossi’s original compositions and retrofitting of popular songs (not to mention Andrew Flynn and Ian Hooper’s novel song, “I’m John McClane”), with Nick Foran’s sound and lighting recreating the 1988 action masterpiece.
The premise of gruff New York cop John McClane arriving in L.A. on Christmas Eve to visit his neglected wife Holly Genaro at her Nakatomi Corporation Christmas shindig, only for the adversarial Hans and his German goons to villainously appear and take the party-goers hostage, is satirized spectacularly. Just when audience members think they know where the next scene is headed, A Very Die Hard Christmas works even harder to keep everyone guessing with side-splitting absurdity. The only glaring omission is the absence of Sgt. Al Powell who, in the film, fills a pivotal role as a fellow, trustworthy cop.
Niek Versteeg is the sharp-tongued McClane, sauntering and smoking coolly as Bruce Willis did in a white tank top upon arriving at LAX. Thereafter, a trip to the “crapper” at Nakatomi Plaza sees him without shoes as he becomes increasingly more bloodied and bellicose. Versteeg is a believable anti-hero who emotes with intensity and sings with passion as he does in the country-tinged “I’m John McClane” (with lyrics like “I’m telling you what’s going on by singing this refrain”) and a Roy Rogers-inspired ditty called “Yippee Ki-Yay (Mo-Fo).” Proving his versatility, Versteeg is simultaneously hysterical as he lets loose by doing jigs and cheerily waving his arms onstage.
Lauren Samuels gives a winning performance as Holly from the moment she walks out in a purple-blue dress and preeminent perm before piquantly introducing visitors of Theatre 40 to “Somewhere Here at Nakatomi” (a droll twist on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”) when we learn that her Holly is mightily aroused by the impending arrival of her husband. Bookending the show is “All I Want for Christmas is John” (a prankish nod to Mariah Carey), which Samuels vocalizes with gusto, laying it on riotously thick with references to “John’s massive schlong.” There’s no denying that Samuels really embraces the ridiculousness of it all, which observers, in turn, heartily applaud.
Replacement or not, Sean Cowhig is a laugh-fest as the devilish Hans, channeling the theatrical splendor of Alan Rickman who deserves as much credit as Willis for giving Die Hard the cachet it has. Cowhig’s nasally German accent and comic timing are seamless, and, at the same time, there is a formidable feel to his portrayal which amplifies the reactions to his “O Tannenbaum” (the German version of “O Christmas Tree”) and his interminable “Free Fallin’” descent into the afterlife, which is ingeniously punctuated by the poetry of Tom Petty. The success of the lampooned proceedings is heavily dependent on Hans’ machinations, and more importantly the reception to them, which Cowhig astutely does not leave to chance.
Hans’ wicked, David Hasselhoff-loving cohorts are Helmut and Helga who are depicted by Nick Bredosky and Roslyn Cohn, respectively. The two actors are initially observed as a pair of oblivious vacationers prior to becoming Super Soaker-carrying henchmen, one hysterically clad in Lederhosen (Helmut) and the other in S&M-influenced, thigh-high leather (Helga). When they’re not gleefully singing an electro-pop, body-shaking tune called “We Are Part of the German Nation,” Helga takes carnal delight in extracting information and Helmut is audacious in his pursuit of the protagonist. Cohn is awesomely over the top, using larger-than-life facial expressions to solidify her obtuse persona, and Bredosky is an invaluable contributor to perhaps the most memorable scene — a “Holding Out for a Hero” dance battle with Versteeg’s McClane that is impeccable in its facetious execution.
Most people might be inclined to forget about Ellis in the film, but thanks to Joe Clabby’s rendering of the corporate executive with a penchant for nose candy that would make Tony Montana blush, the cocaine-mustachioed slicker leaves quite the impression. Ellis’ best exchanges are with Cowhig’s Hans, when the former’s brash overestimation of his negotiating skills comes to a hilarious head with the latter’s quirky non-verbal acknowledgements. Needless to say, Clabby is terrific at personifying the bluster and excess of VH1’s favorite decade.
Not to be overlooked is Raymund King’s Joe Takagi who earns loads of chuckles with his purposeful refuse-to-give-into-terrorists dry delivery, fanciful rope trick, and his swansong “I Did It the Nakatomi Way” (a riff on Frank Sinatra’s 1969 hit). Similarly, Kristal Dickerson is affable as Argyle, the speaking-in-verses limo driver, who draws attention to the narrative exposition and makes the best of her scene, which is pointed out in the meta sense when Versteeg’s John gives her a hard time.
Overall, Theatre 40’s production of A Very Die Hard Christmas – The Stage Musical encapsulates everything one can ask for in a parody as it honors the original source material with generous helpings of hijinks thrown in. And with a pithy running time, the jokes never overstay their welcome; instead, the audience is left wanting more. Perhaps additional material of this variety is not outside the realm of possibility, either, given the myriad Die Hard sequels.
Theatre 40’s production of A Very Die Hard Christmas — The Stage Musical runs two more times — on Sunday, December 17th and Wednesday, December 20th. Both shows will begin at 7:30 pm. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit theatre40.org or diehardxmas.com.