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Review: The Chalks bring a rollicking, honky-tonk Christmas to Alliance’s Hertz Stage

Leenya Rideout of the Chalks getting down and dirty at the Alliance.  (Photo by Greg Mooney)
Leenya Rideout of the Chalks rocks it at the Alliance. (Photo by Greg Mooney)

If you were to sit down and try to formulate a show that would be a certain hit with Atlanta audiences, you’d probably end up including these elements: fun country songs, lovably dissipated characters, down-home humor with a sly edge, a Christmas theme, a bit of audience participation and, just to be absolutely sure, you’d let everyone get their drink on throughout the show. Those are, in fact, the basic building blocks of “Holidays With the Chalks,” on the Alliance Theatre’s Hertz Stage through December 23, and it seems tailor-made to please.

The Chalks are a fictional country music group made up of three dysfunctional “sisters,” played by New York actresses Mary Brienza, Kathryn Markey and Leenya Rideout. They’re bringing the act to Atlanta for their first full-length Christmas show, and the conceit here is that the Chalks are performing at a dive bar called Tubby’s, celebrating the end of their recent house arrest. They’re also nursing the hurt of being supplanted by a younger, slicker rival country music group in the annual Christmas parade in Nashville. Fans of the live show “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” will be familiar with the framing device and the theater-as-dive-bar concept.

The Hertz has made a convincing transformation. There’s still some conventional seating in rows at the back and to the sides of the large black-box space, but the floor is mostly taken up by tables and a few rows of tatty couches. Neon signs, a bar serving ice-cold beer and strings of Christmas lights complete the look of a cheap roadside honky-tonk. (There should be a special Suzi Award for the designer who decided to hang a compound hunting bow as bar decoration: perfection.)

The show itself, composed of gently satirical country songs with between-song banter that delves into the imagined group’s performing and recording history, would be a disaster if the three leads didn’t approach the subject lovingly. Even more critically, they have a talent for creating music.

The songs — from cry-in-your-beer breakup tunes to rousing patriotic anthems — are conventionally appealing even as the conventions are being mocked. The conceit might have had some political sting and heft if it had been presented during the George W. Bush years, but here it is simply a fun lark. The parody is always gentle, even loving, and it’s never harsh.

There’s a delightful late-night, boozy, slightly ribald giddiness to the whole thing. It’s surprising, then, that most of the shows are conventionally scheduled at 8 p.m., with a couple of (ouch) Sunday matinees. It seems designed for a late starting time, with the bar open before the show. Still, “Holidays With the Chalks” evokes the feeling of a naughty, grown-up retreat from all the “Christmas Carols” and “Nutcrackers” currently taking over theaters all over town.

People who don’t like country music, spoofs or hooch should stay away. The mix of cabaret, stand-up comedy, character sketch and theater may startle some audience members expecting a more conventional show. I thought I detected a few startled looks and blank stares near the beginning of the performance on opening night. But eventually folks seemed to come around. A full bar always helps.

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