A Review of Act II's "Oh What Fun!"

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Tony Braithwaite, Will Dennis, Howie Brown and Sonny Leo star in Act II Playhouse's holiday variety show OH, WHAT FUN!, on stage Dec. 11-30. Photo by Nina Price Photography.
Tony Braithwaite, Will Dennis, Howie Brown and Sonny Leo star in Act II Playhouse's holiday variety show OH, WHAT FUN!, on stage Dec. 11-30. Photo by Nina Price Photography.

Tony Braithwaite never disappoints. On display at the Act II Playhouse is a keen sense of just what makes you laugh, what makes you cheer, and what makes you smile with dimples so merry. Oh What Fun! is a delightful relic of a bygone era, which the cast dusts off and resurrects with full vitality in this thoroughly entertaining tribute to Christmas variety shows. Act II has assembled a talented group (including Howie Brown, Will Dennis, and pianist Sonny Leo) that will sing, dance, do impressions, concoct an improv scene, and so much more.

There truly is something to tickle everyone’s fancy in this show. Braithwaite, who is the Producing Artistic Director for the theatre, shows that he knows the best parts of the Johnny Carson and Andy Williams formulas. Bits in this one-act show touch on current events and celebrities as well as classic bits like a visit from Carnac the Magnificent, Carson’s soothsayer of reverse one-liners. There is a medley of surprisingly-authentic holiday songs that are so terrible, you’d never believe they really hit the airwaves. Brown serves up straight lines to Braithwaite with a combination of deadpan and puppy-dog enthusiasm that keeps the rhythm of the show rolling along. If that wasn’t enough, he also shares a classy rendition of Dominic the Donkey. What more could you ask for?

Braithwaite shows his incredible versatility when he treats the audience to a reading of Twas the Night Before Christmas. Each stanza was delivered in a different persona as names were pulled from a fishbowl, flitting from presidents to actors to musicians in rapid succession. Some of the transitions caught him in a chuckle as an especially apt impersonation rolled around for a particularly outrageous line of the poem. The breaks in character scattered infrequently throughout the evening left the audience in an uproar, finding that perfect balance of professionalism and vulnerability of live productions that The Carol Burnett Show always played so well.

It’s always risky wandering into this intimate theater anytime the show isn’t scripted, since you might become part of the scene. The cast presents It’s YOUR Wonderful Life, putting a member of the audience onstage to share some details from their past. Dennis led the cast in a re-enactment of what the world would look like had never been born!

Pianist Sonny Leo is familiar to Act II regulars as the accompanist for many shows, but here he also displays his talents as a singer and steps from behind his keyboard to tap-dance. He was praised in the show by special guest Justin Hopkins for his range of skills, and rightfully so. Hopkins featured as one of the show’s many variable aspects, stepping in to share his rendition of a few traditional carols. (Braithwaite, Brown, Dennis, and Hopkins are all alumni of St. Joseph’s Prep. Somebody grant Mr. Leo an honorary diploma already to round out the cast’s credentials!)

Oh What Fun! runs now through December 30, 2012. Tickets are $27 for Wednesday-Friday performances and $33 for Saturday and Sunday shows, and available by calling the Act II Box Office at 215-654-0200, visiting in person at 56 E. Butler Ave. in Ambler, buying online at www.act2.org. The box office is open 2-6p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

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