Arts & EntertainmentFront Page A&ESpreading Holiday Cheer

The ‘Ugly’ Side of Christmas

Dan Knechtges’ The Ugly Xmas Sweater Musical brings holiday cheer at the Hobby Center.

TUTS artistic director Dan Knechtges (Photo by Ruben Vela)

The holiday season is here, and Theatre Under The Stars (TUTS) is decking the halls, making spirits bright, and gearing up for an ‘O, Ugly Night’! Dan Knechtges, TUTS artistic director, is thrilled to premiere a brand new musical, The Ugly Xmas Sweater Musical, on stage from November 28 to December 24 at the Hobby Center.

The Ugly Xmas Sweater Musical is a comedy that will make members of the audience stars of the show. The story is centered around a company at risk of being bought out by an international conglomerate.
In order for the employees to save their jobs, they must create the ugliest Christmas sweater ever made.

“We describe the show as the sitcom The Office meets Project Runway and RuPaul’s Drag Race,” Knechtges, who co-wrote the musical’s book with Megan Larche Dominick, explains. “It tells the story of Cheryl, who is the HR director of a regalia uniform company. On the eve of their Christmas party, they find out that they’ve been bought by a German conglomerate that’s owned by a woman named Olga, who looks suspiciously like Heidi Klum, and everybody is going to lose their jobs. Cheryl comes up with the idea that the company will come together and make ugly Christmas sweaters to prevent them from losing their jobs.” Knechtges explains that it’s up to the employees to convince Olga that “ugly is beautiful.”

“It isn’t just the actors on stage,” he teases. “The audience will also become important characters in the show. The musical can’t move on unless we have audience members helping to sketch, design, model, and vote on what are going to be the ugly Christmas sweaters that get pitched to Olga.”

The Ugly Xmas Sweater Musical cast members (Photo by Melissa Taylor)

Audience members are warned, Knechtges and Dominick have determined creative ways to select participants from the crowd. “We’ve got ideas on how we’re going to solicit audience members, and it’s all going to happen right in front of everyone’s eyes. Some people will get to sketch, some will model, and some will walk the runway.”

If audience members don’t make it on stage, they’ll still be able to contribute to the magic happening in the theater. “Along the way there are sing-alongs and audience call-and-response,” Knechtges says. “We take just about every Christmas carol you know, flip it and reverse it. We incorporate traditional carols, and the show ends with a dance party to Christmas carols with an electronic dance music track.”

Regarding the source material, Knechtges explains it was a no-brainer for him, as it afforded the artist creative liberty and inspiration. “I think Christmas is the greatest holiday ever. I never get sick of it,” he explains. “I also think while it resonates with people who are religious, it also appeals to a lot of people who are not religious. I wanted to create something that really resonated with the largest group of people possible to reach a wide audience.”

“Anytime the holidays happen and you get family together—or forced ‘work’ families—polarity and tension ensues.” This flurry of emotion is exactly what inspired Knechtges in directing and choreographing the show. “I like that [combination], especially in a theater piece,” he explains. “And I like that Christmas is at the end of the year and people always look at their life over the past year, which adds drama to any sort of party, gathering, or theater piece. So, all of that combined, is like when you pull the slot machine lever—cherry, cherry, cherry!”

While younger theatergoers may gravitate toward Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, on the TUTS mainstage from December 5 to 24, Knechtges explains that the content in Ugly Xmas Sweater will likely appeal to a more mature crowd. “There’s nothing raunchy, but it’s spoofing office culture. We’re parodying literally every Christmas property out there, like It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, Scrooge, The Santa Clause, Home Alone, and more. It is definitely alternative Christmas programming.”

“It is supposed to be an easy night at the theater. If you come with your office pals, you can laugh together if your coworker is chosen to go on stage. Or if you come with your family, you’ll possibly see them on stage, walking the runway,” Knechtges says enthusiastically.
“It’s a different show every time, because the main character, the audience, is different every time.”

The artistic director explains that his new production is the realization of a dream he’s had since arriving at Theatre Under The Stars, and invites audiences to come enjoy, have fun, and celebrate the holidays together. “I have always been jealous of all of these organizations that have their annual Christmas program, because TUTS did not have that. I’m hopeful that Ugly Xmas Sweater can be that perennial Christmas show that creates new Christmas memories for everybody in Houston.”

WHAT: The Ugly Xmas Sweater Musical
WHEN: November 28 to December 24
WHERE: The Hobby Center


Zach McKenzie

Zachary McKenzie is a marketing professional and freelance writer in Houston, TX. He received his bachelor's degree from The University of Texas at Austin in 2014 and has lived in Houston since. Zachary is a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters and enjoys spending his free time with friends, exploring the richness and diversity of Houston.
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