Holiday Office Party Spirit: ‘The Ugly Xmas Sweater Musical’ at TUTS

If the performing arts holiday season were an office party, the party’s requisite gift exchange usually reveals shiny versions of Christmas Carol, Nutcracker, Elf and various Jane Austin updates. While we love those traditional theatrical presents, in all their It’s a Wonderful Life iterations, sometimes we hope for that surprise oddity of a gift, one so ugly it’s beautiful.

Houston’s Theatre Under The Stars also understands the allure of some tacky fun and plans to offer the ultimate holiday show alternative this season with the world premiere, The Ugly Xmas Sweater Musical.

Written by TUTS artistic director Dan Knechtges, who will also direct and choreograph, and Megan Larche Dominick, the show (running Nov. 28-Dec. 24) will tell the story of Regalia Uniform Company, a small clothing manufacturer that’s about to get gobbled up by a multinational corporation, which will lay off Regalia employees during the holidays. All seems lost until HR manager Cheryl comes up with a manufacturing idea to make the company more valuable alive than liquidated. With jobs on the line, it’s time to get ugly. . .by creating a line of ugly holiday sweaters.

Knechtges acknowledges that the musical may be the first to make an HR manager the hero. Having worked as a contracted artist for many years, he rarely took note of HR departments. But after settling into the AD position at TUTS, Knechtges gained a lot of respect for what an HR manager does.

“I started getting a little more understanding of what they do and the artistry they have, in terms of workflow within the office and keeping all the employees engaged and happy,” he says. And that respect turned into inspiration when writing the show. “We just thought it was a perfect opportunity for that to be our heroine in the play and for her to be the one who saves the day.”

Ugly Xmas Sweater will have a relatively small cast including Cheryl’s adult daughter and a few recognizable characters in any office, like that one worker who refuses to retire, the want-to-be social media influencer and the HR nightmare employee who always behaves badly.

“The other thing that became clear is that if we were writing a Christmas musical then family had to be a part of it. We felt strongly that family, both the ones you create for yourself in your life, your friends and coworkers, but also your blood related family, was represented,” explains Knechtges.

The main antagonist of the show is the corporate raider CEO, Olga, who just might resemble supermodel and reality show super host/judge Heidi Klum.

Most of the parody and “spoofing” in the show is lovingly done. Knechtges even thinks of Klum as one of the nicest reality competition show judges, but the fun of making Cheryl’s adversary a German fashionista was too hilarious to pass up.

“Who doesn’t love a funny German? They’re so chic, stylish, urbane and European. That feels like it’s also very funny against American tastes and values and worth laughing at.”

The last and maybe most important cast members will be the audience, who become the rest of the employees. During the show, audience members can help design sweaters, vote on picks and become ugly sweater supermodels, walking the runway onstage.

“The trick with Ugly Xmas Sweater is that we didn’t want it to feel performative. We wanted it to feel organic, as if the audience was a character, as if they were the employees. For the plot to move forward they had to participate because what fun is an office party with five people? You need 500 people.”

Since the cast must interact with the audience throughout the show, Knechtges says it will call for skilled actors with the ability to improvise.

“They have to be smart, intuitive, read an audience and be quick on their feet.”

The word “musical” is in the title of the show, so also expect opportunities for sing-along sessions of well-known holiday songs from “Jingle Bells” to the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah, many with new arrangements. And if the majority of those songs happen to be in the public domain, well, Knechtges is admittedly “no dummy.”

While the musical will stand, and dance, on its own, Knechtges hopes audiences will get into the office party spirit, having fun with the premise even before they walk into the Hobby Center. He wants everyone to pick out their own favorite ugly Christmas sweater to wear.

“You can wear it ironically or un-ironically to a show where you are embraced because you are wearing it. Then you get to sing Christmas songs and if you’re chosen to come up and walk the runway, you become a couture version of your sweater as well.”