11/26: Four Days/ Two Guys of Hanu-Mas

Broadway veterans Marc Kudisch and Jeffry Denman ARE The Holiday Guys, and they’re on a multi-show mission to spread some much needed seasonal cheer from the Monmouth University stage.  (photo by Daryl Getman)

They’re called The Holiday Guys — a couple of Broadway-branded acting/ singing/ dancing/ musicmaking multi-taskers; each with an individual résumé longer than Santa’s Nice List, and a collective desire to redefine the experiences of Christmas and Hanukkah into a seasonal synergy known as Hanu-Mas.

With Superstorm Sandy dumping countless tons of water, woe, sand and debris on the threshold of the season, however, these gifted entertainers are being cast as something more than savvy RE-gifters of cheer and tradition. When The Holiday Guys bring their 2012 Hanu-Mas Concert Tour to the Pollak Theatre at Monmouth University for a four-day, four-show extended engagement that begins Thursday, November 29, it will be as messengers of morale-boosting merriment for a local audience that’s just gone through the most challenging interlude of its life and times. A couple of prophets and saviors, even; charged with sounding a keynote to the season of lights — even if it takes a billion battery-powered tea candles (and a gas generator or two) to stave off the darkness.

The Holiday Guys are Marc Kudisch — a three-time Tony nominee whose big-time Broadway bonafides include Thoroughly Modern Millie, Beauty and the Beast, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang — as well as Jeffry Denman, whose Great White Way wowzers include Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, How to Succeed in Business (Without Really Trying), and the original Broadway cast of The Producers (an experience that was the subject of an acclaimed memoir by the first-time author). Together they’re teaming up for a project that’s been analyzed as “two parts Smothers Brothers quirkiness and sentimentality; one part nostalgic innocence and sincere goofiness of Laurel and Hardy, one part sophisticated and joy filled song and dance routines of Kelly and Kaye, and one part infectious humor and holiday variety show of Hope and Crosby.”

With Kudisch strumming guitar, and Denman (who’ll be channeling the hoofing skills that served him so well in his Fred Astaire tribute ) joining in on the most Yuletide ukelele this side of Christmas Island, The Guys will be putting their own silver-bells spin on a sleighload of seasonal songs, stories and snickers — all delivered by the light and crackle of a Yule-log fireplace. There’s even some talk of cameo appearances by some special guest stars — and with shows at 8pm on November 29 and 30, and 3pm on November 30 and December 2, you’ve little to no excuse for not making it home for Hanu-Mas.

Your upperWETside correspondent pulled up a fireside and chatted about the true meaning of HanuMas — and the need for a little extra light amid the blacked-out blitzkrieg of Sandy’s residual ill wind — with a couple of not-so-secret Santas named Kudisch and Denman. Open up that package (and save the bows; save the bows)…

upperWETside: I’m aware that your act has been booked into Monmouth U for some time, but how much has the meaning of this engagement changed in the weeks since the hurricane hit? Do you look at it now as being not so much a vaudeville whistle-stop, but something akin to a USO morale-building tour?

MARC KUDISCH: We’d been booked into Monmouth for months, and then (Sandy) happened. It was then that we became acutely aware of how excited we were to do this.

JEFFRY DENMAN: Marc and I have done enough hospital benefits and charity shows to know that going down to Monmouth is our most important stop this year…you know when you’re doing the right thing. The minute that Sandy hit, we realized where we would be going, and what it meant.

I should point out that we are of course still talking about a show that’s been likened to everything from Hope and Crosby to the Smothers Brothers. Something that’s light and entertaining and just a wee bit irreverent!

KUDISCH: We’re reverent, but not taking ourselves too seriously…it’s the kind of stuff you really shouldn’t do outside your living room. We’re a couple of guys hanging out, with two chairs and a fake fireplace. And at the end of it there’ll be heart.

The audience is not coming in to a $14 million set. Instead of a big show, we want people to feel that they’ve come home, to slip into a community conversation of the moment…we just wanted people to be comfortable.

DENMAN: We’ve gone down the road of developing the show; researching other holidays. Socially, there’s a need for human beings to celebrate themselves; the things that makes them human…and to see each other as we all celebrate.

A holiday show with heart! Walk us back to the original gleam in the eye that became the Holiday Guys show. As kids, you guys were familiar with all those Boomer-era holiday TV specials…Bing Crosby, Perry Como, King Family…and the late great Andy Williams, who’d sit down on a soundstage set with his family; smile and pretend that the wife he’d separated from didn’t just shoot her pro skier boyfriend. Didn’t matter what was going on behind the scenes of course…these shows had a real appeal, and I’m thinking that they must have exerted a great influence upon what you guys are doing. 

KUDISCH: I’m Jewish; and for me, listening to Christmas music in the car…it’s the kind of music I love; my favorite time of the year. I put a Jewish perspective on it.

That was a time, with The Smothers Brothers, the variety shows and the Christmas specials on TV, when the best stuff in the world happened. That kind of conversation with the audience doesn’t exist anymore.

So Holiday Guys began in earnest through your mutual association with the revues and shows at Town Hall? Did you originally get the project rolling under the banner of Town Hall, or was this to be something independent of them from the start?

DENMAN: We did Town Hall Broadway for about a year before we started moving forward with the germ of an idea. Town Hall thought it should be something it wasn’t; an all star evening.

KUDISCH: They thought it was too big of a risk to do a holiday show at the holidays!

DENMAN: We went to John’s Pizzeria, sat down and wrote down about 18 or 19 ‘events’ for the show…it became clear that it was a different type of show; an environment that felt like home…and at that meeting we coined the term Holiday Guy.

Obviously The Holiday Guys is a much different animal than the Radio City Music Hall Spectacular, or one of the big Christmas-themed shows on Broadway.

KUDISCH: There’s a preciousness and a glitz to the big holiday shows. It’s just too big sometimes…although you get your money’s worth, with camels and shit walking around on stage.

DENMAN: I have to say, there’s something about the Radio City tradition. I first saw the Christmas Spectacular when I was in my early thirties…my girfriend was a Rockette! And I got carried away; got choked up…the five year old in me totally loved that. It’s a spectacle, but it’s got heart.

The advantage of going small is that you give yourselves a lot more latitude to try different angles; keep tweaking the format and have a little fun with it from night to night. Would you say by this point that the show we’re going to see is still evolving, or has it been fine-tuned into a shape that you’re comfy with?

DENMAN: I’m forever the Felix Ungar of the group; the one who wants structure, rehearsal. Marc just wants to flow with it, do it, see where it goes.

KUDISCH: The audience will never have a sense of where we’re going…the show will be something that will ever grow, ever change.

DENMAN: It’s not written down. The show is really us…us talking to each other. It’s changed every time we do it.

KUDISCH: We also have a guest coming for every show. In past shows we’ve had people like Richard Kind…and John Tartaglia, who even when he couldn’t make it in person sent us a special package to be opened on stage. And inside were puppets, that we took out and performed with just for that show.

Getting back to the very real need for a little seasonal light here at the terrible tail end of 2012, is The Holiday Guys ultimately a great escape sleighride, or a way to slow it down, take a breath, surround ourselves with things that are truly significant? 

DENMAN: It’s not so much an escape as there’s a human connection; a higher art form to lift the audience up. Have them not think about their problems for the next 90 minutes. As far as New Jersey needing something right now…this is what we do. This is how we can help.

KUDISCH: It’s so easy for people to lose focus of what’s important for the holidays. This year especially, one of the gifts to be found is getting back to basics; finding what’s most important to you. Just being together helps us rediscover our hearts with each other.

Tickets for any of the Holiday Guys performances ($30 and $40) are available by calling (732)263-6889, or visiting http://www.monmouth.edu/arts.