As a distant memory, family holiday gatherings are warm and cozy, with peaceful moments by the fireplace listening to classic Christmas carols or other various denominational tunes.
In the harsh reality of the moment, though, those visits can be chaotic, emotional rollercoasters, filled with squabbles, awkward exchanges with rarely seen relatives and stressed-filled excursions to the overcrowded mall.
Sandra Tsing Loh’s simple, pleasant and often funny Sugar Plum Fairy is the latter — but in a good way. The 70-minute one-act play, which started as one of Loh’s many one-woman shows and morphed in recent years to include two supporting castmates, is appearing through Dec. 22 at East West Player’s David Henry Hwang Theatre in Little Tokyo.
Directed by Bart DeLorenzo, Sugar Plum Fairy is familiar Loh, a frenetic, herky-jerky foray into her past, played successfully for laughs but without the clear set-ups and punchlines. Loh, known for her work on radio’s “This American Life” and her several books, has never been the sharpest comedian or a multi-faceted performer. Instead, Loh’s at home being a bit ragged at the edges, and her charm comes from the homemade production values and stream of consciousness structure of her stories.
Sugar Plum Fairy opens with Loh in a marvelously tacky Christmas tree outfit, assisted by two elves, Shannon Holt and Tony Abatemarco, and a snowman named Frosty (Frier McCollister).
Abatemarco laments that he once directed legendary Julie Harris on Broadway and now is wearing a tinsel-draped Hanukkah sweater in this oddball production, but he shrugs his shoulders and proceeds — along with Holt — to portray about a half-dozen people central to a holiday story that took place in 1974 when Loh was 12.
Loh sets the scene, with some audience participation, as she solicits memories about what houses looked like (avocado green shag rugs and plastic on furniture) and what kids did to have fun (ride Schwinn bicycles and play outside without cell phones).
Some kids also take dance classes, and for Loh, the dream is to play a key role in one of her favorite stories, The Nutcracker.
Several things stand in her way from that dream. First, she needs to audition, so her two junior high school pals — a budding thespian with a penchant for over-acting and a horse-obsessed girl who makes music with water glasses — encourage her to release her inner tiger.
Other obstacles are an older sister with way more dance skills, a mother who mostly ignores her and an aging Russian ballerina who has come to oversee the show (Abatemarco, in one of his many characters that earns a lot of laughs).
Loh reaches a bit for sentimentality, but there’s no emotional depth or palpable angst. Instead, Sugar Plum Fairy rarely strays from its lighthearted and family friendly veneer.
It was wise to add actors, because Holt and Abatemarco deliver quirky characters with more dimension than Loh could ever do.
Likewise, Keith Mitchell’s scenic design, dominated by all things kitschy-Christmas, combined with John Ballinger’s choice of music, paint a whimsical backdrop that enhances the story.
Loh doesn’t let the audience go without reliving her key moves from that 1974 Nutcracker. The audience even gets to join the dance without having to pass an audition.
Director DeLorenzo should tighten the transitions from each section of the story, which often lag and stop the show’s flow. But he’s got the tone and set spot-on, letting a “let’s put on a show” casualness dictate the performance style.
While the Sugar Plum Fairy, remarkably Loh’s first show at East West Players. often feels haphazard and disjointed, the result is much like a family holiday gathering—a fun time that will be warmly remembered.
Sugar Plum Fairy runs through Dec. 22 at the David Henry Hwang Theater at
120 Judge John Aiso St., (213) 625-7000 or