Christmas Eve is just over a fortnight away, and Central Florida's theme parks and theaters are fully saturated with holiday happenings. In just the past few weeks, I've tried getting into the seasonal spirit by witnessing the chilly construction of Gaylord Palms' spectacular Ice! walk-through display, which returned this year with sub-zero scenes from Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas; and also by attending Universal Orlando's musical adaptation of that same story, which is my second-favorite component of that resort's winter festivities, following CityWalk's phenomenal new mid-century mod Green & Red Coconut Club. I've snapped a selfie under the towering tree in Town Square at Disney's Magic Kingdom, and watched social media sensation Lindsey Stirling soar above the Dr. Phillips Center's Walt Disney stage while sawing her violin to electrified hymns as her sold-out audience shrieked in rapture.
Each of these yuletide experiences was enjoyable taken individually. But unless you're the type of person who looks forward all year to the Hallmark Channel's December lineup, digesting so much uplifting inspirational entertainment in rapid succession can have a similar effect to eating an eggnog-soaked fruitcake topped with sugarplums. So, where can a dyspeptic critic like myself enjoy some snarky secular socializing with just a hint of schmaltz? It turns out that Donald Rupe's Renaissance Theater (rentheatre.com) had exactly the naughty anti-nativity I was seeking, in the sophomore outing of their signature seasonal show, The Office Holiday Party Musical Extravaganza Show, running through Dec. 23.
Many theatergoers were introduced to "The Ren" last spring when it hosted two venues for the Orlando Fringe Festival, but the location has become most notable for the immersive shows created by Rupe, e.g. Halloween's Nosferatu. After being impressed by the first edition in 2021, I was even more thrilled by the evolution of this October's interactive vampire tale, from the disorienting variety of haunting environments to explore to the markedly more realistic blood used during its orgiastic finale. However, I still felt that the show could have benefited from live original music and a clearer story, and I wished the entire experience was more accessible to attendees with mobility issues.
It seems that Santa heard my wish, because this year's revamped return of The Office Holiday Party Musical Extravaganza Show turned out to be everything I asked for, wrapped with a bow.
The room at the Ren that recently held creepy circus tents has been transformed into the Orlando branch of Gripp & Pfister, whose employees are enjoying a final blowout before corporate downsizing banishes them to Kissimmee. Slap on a "Hello" name tag (with a randomly assigned moniker), grab a cookie or cocktail from the bar (Santa's Sack packs a deceptively strong punch), and secure a swivel chair with a view of the stage as your arriving "co-workers" roam the room sharing their gossipy backstories.
Before long, the 16-member ensemble launches into the first of a dozen fully formed musical numbers lampooning iconic elements of awkward workplace get-togethers, like "white elephant" gift exchanges, cheesy team-building ritual dances and alcohol-fueled unprofessionalism. Those subjects might sound like Christmas clichés, but the skilled improvisers embodying these over-the-top characters — including drunken divorcee Deborah (Kristie Geng), incoherent sexpot Paris Anna Nicole (Yan Diaz) and weed-addled Leslie (Devin Skorupski) — make this mistletoe mockery feel as refreshingly intimate and original as it is outrageously hilarious.
Rupe's pop-pastiche songs are performed by a powerful four-piece band led by arranger Jason M. Bailey, and are as well-crafted and tuneful as anything in his acclaimed musical From Here, which is being performed off-Broadway early next year.
Highlights include Karen's (Kamryn C. Burton) ironic toast to hypocritical diversity; Finnigan's (Blake Aburn) and Faith's (Michelle Coben) double entendre-stuffed sanctimonious guitar sermon; and Sheila's (Melissa Bibliowicz) breathless Hanukkah patter song, which brought the audience to its feet for the biggest Hora I've danced since my cousin's Orthodox wedding.
Smartly, it isn't all just played for laughs, with some unexpectedly emotional ballads for overlooked Ed (David Lowe) and Eileen (Amy Sue Hardy), the antagonist from the head office. And although the deus ex denouements of some plotlines are predictable, that doesn't stop them from being satisfying. My only remaining wish is that the booming sound system had allowed me to understand Rupe's witty lyrics better.
Ultimately, The Office Holiday Party Musical Extravaganza Show is a first-rate dinner show minus the dinner, and despite my hard-earned ambivalence towards audience participation, the Ren's cast did a remarkable job of roping me into their raucous festivities. It's been over a decade since I worked in a cubicle, but I'd consider returning to a desk job if every office holiday party were this much fun.