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Friday, June 14, 2024

Theatre review: Holiday at the Elbow Room Café plays it too safe inside its spirited fun

Innuendo and double entendres abound in this agreeable holiday bauble

While families are enjoying this year’s East Van Panto with a delightful production of Pinocchio at the York Theatre, over at The Cultch, we were promised something just for us big kids.

Problem is playwright Dave Deveau never really takes the gloves off with Holiday at the Elbow Room Café. Instead of a “new adults-only holiday tradition,” Deveau aims too low with some rather tame sexual innuendo and a sprinkling of repurposed Christmas songs, including a rendition of The 12 Days of Christmas about having to hold your pee.

Having seen Deveau and his husband Cameron Mackenzie, who also directs this show, perform as their drag alter egos, I know both men are not afraid to go places. I wish they had here.

The set-up is relatively simple. Vancouver is in the throes of a winter snowstorm, which has shut down the city. Not the usual dusting that sends West Coast residents into a tailspin, but nine full inches. And if you’re guessing Deveau makes a big deal out of nine inches (wink wink), you’re well on your way to understanding the evening.

Finding himself trapped inside the Elbow Room Café with a small group of eccentric characters, co-owner Patrice is lamenting his inability to take in the annual Christmas spectacular. In an attempt to cheer him up, they decide to create a show of their own.

Again, Deveau inexplicably plays it safe with his characters. The prospect of a city health inspector who might be a lesbian and into a little kink is never fully realized. And the familiar “Dick in A Box” joke from an Amazon delivery man is repeated numerous times but lacks a unique twist to make it truly funny.

A musical, it comes by way of Christmas carols with new lyrics and recycled numbers from the original Elbow Room Café: The Musical. While most fail to leave an impression, the one big highlight of the night comes well into act two from David Underhill, who plays the delivery guy (hence the dick/box jokes).  In an inspired I Have a Little Dreidel, he repeats the song three times in different styles, including a hilarious Fosse rendition that also involves ladles. Holiday at the Elbow Room Café desperately needed more songs like it.

Despite playing it too safe, there is an infectious celebratory mood created by this capable cast. Joey Lesperance does an astounding job of impersonating the real-life Patrice, and Emma Slipp is delightfully over-the-top as the Texas firecracker Tabby. Underhill and Emilie Leclerc provide solid support, although I wish Leclerc were permitted to explore more of her character’s naughty side.

Deveau also gives some delights in the meta-theatricality of the show. Fully self-aware, no one is taking anything too seriously on stage. It is David Adams as Bryan who expertly maneuvers through the many breaks in the fourth wall.

There is also a kernel of Christmas magic buried beneath the double entendres. I hesitate to say more to avoid spoiling it for anyone else who might discover it. Suffice to say, like its non-holiday predecessor, it comes from a place of love and respect for the real-life owners of the now-closed Elbow Room Café.

In the end, while Holiday at the Elbow Room Café is at times spirited fun, it plays it far too safe. While I’m not expecting an R-rating, this holiday bauble is, at the very most, PG entertainment.

Holiday at the Elbow Room Café by Dave Deveau. Featuring songs from Elbow Room Café: The Musical by Dave Deveau and Anton Lipovetsky. Directed by Cameron Mackenzie. A Zee Zee Theatre production presented by The Cultch. On stage at The Cultch’s Historic Theatre (1895 Venables St, Vancouver) until December 29. Visit for tickets and information.

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