Two men plus 21 rapid-fire costume changes equal much-needed comedic relief in Bay City this month

Local actors and long-time friends Kurt Miller and Larry Jacobs are taking multiple personalities to a new level this month with six performances of “A Tuna Christmas,” a comedy showcasing a fictional town in East Texas and the lives and attitudes of its residents. 

The dynamic duo is rehearsing now to bring the story alive for the fourth time together, and performances will be held Dec. 10-12 and 17-19 at the Bay City Players, 1214 Columbus Ave. 

Jacobs met Miller when Miller was a judge at a one-act play competition. Jacobs was in the competition. The men have been friends for 40 years.Miller and Jacobs have a long-standing relationship through the arts, evident after even a brief discussion. The two talk in tandem and seem to anticipate what the other is about to say, finishing each other’s sentences at points. Their comfortability with one another likely stems from four decades of working together, though their introduction to one another was slightly unsavory, at least on Jacobs’ end.

“When Larry and I first met I was actually a judge for a one-act play competition. I was working at John Glenn and Larry was in high school [at Garber]. It was 1978 or 1979,” Miller explains.

The show is set during Christmas and focuses on a phantom who has wreaked havoc in the community for years.Jacobs quickly jumps in: “He was the meanest judge you’d ever want to meet. He wore this polyester three-piece suit. He would just walk along, and he looked so scary. We’d say, ‘There’s that Miller guy!’” Jacobs recalls. “So, we didn’t really ‘meet.’ He just picked on me ... well he picked on everybody. He was very nondiscriminatory.”

Their formal meeting onstage occurred in 1981 when they performed together in the play “South Pacific.”

“We have now been doing shows together on and off for 40 years,” Miller recalls fondly.

“This is the 40th year together? God, and I’m still alive!” Jacobs jests. Both agree that their chemistry onstage is undeniable, and the pair have done a variety of shows together over the years, including “Camelot,” “The Odd Couple,” “Guys and Dolls,” and, of course, the beloved “Tuna” series.

Years ago, Miller came across “A Tuna Christmas,” a two-act comedy by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard. Miller explains that the characters of Tuna, Texas are modeled after people the writers knew in their own lives and incorporate the stereotypes and tropes the trio saw around them.

Quick costume changes make the play a fun challenge.Next, he propositioned Jacobs, and the rest is history.

“When Kurt found this show, he said, ‘Hey what do you think? It’s two guys who play all these parts. You wanna try it?’ And I said, ‘Let’s give it a shot.’ It’s been a blessing ever since.”

Mere minutes of chatting between Miller and Jacobs reveal how entertaining the two will be together onstage, especially considering that they are the only two actors bringing to life 21 characters with varied personalities and profiles. “We split them pretty evenly. Half of them are women. My youngest is a 9-year-old boy, and my oldest is an 80-something-year-old city secretary,” Miller says.

During the play, the actors portray 21 different characters.For Jacobs, it is the female characters that he loves to play most. “Bertha Bumiller is my favorite just because she has such a good heart.”

Miller adds, “She [Bertha] is an ever-suffering wonderful woman. I think my favorite is Vera Carp, she would be sort of a modern-day Karen, if you will. She is the town socialite. She’s rich and clueless.”

The two also take great delight in playing two waitresses clad in pink uniforms at the Tasty Kreme Restaurant (Eat Here, Get Gas) at the beginning of Act Two. In fact, these waitresses, Inita Goodwin and Helen Bedd, sneak into the lobby during intermission to scope out the crowd. Miller says, “Inita and Helen blend with the audience and pick some targets,” as the pair will enter through the audience for the beginning of the second act.

'A Tuna Christmas' offers a chance for families to get together, have fun, and forget the world's problems for a little bit.In fact, it’s the frenzied change from character-to-character that presents the most challenging and entertaining aspects of the show, regardless of how many times it’s been performed. Miller confesses of this fourth set of shows, “I was a little concerned because the older you get, the harder it is to remember lines, but within a week about 90% of our lines were back already. But the costume changes...”

Jacobs laughs, “It’s like choreography. Some changes are done in 20 seconds, so it’s a challenge. That’s the hardest part right now.”

Both men credit their wives, Judy Miller and Kelly Jacobs, for making the quick changes a reality. “We could not do this without our lovely wives backstage changing our clothes for us and literally telling us ‘You’re this guy or this gal’ as we come offstage, because sometimes it’s not what I am saying but who am I,” says Miller.

Jacobs certainly agrees. “There is no way it could happen without those two backstage. My wife Kelly will say that it’s more fun watching it backstage, watching the scene changes, than onstage. Hearing ‘Where’s my bra?’ How many times does a husband say that?”

'A Tuna Christmas' will be performed Dec. 10-18.The underlying plot that connects all of the characters of “A Tuna Christmas,” according to Miller is “... the Christmas phantom who has ‘wreaked havoc in the greater Tuna area for years.’ That theme runs through the whole show, and it’s talked about in almost every scene.”

“There is also a yard display contest in the Tuna area and so the phantom does things throughout the community for years,” Jacobs says.

While the two could certainly perform simply for the enjoyment, “A Tuna Christmas” will serve as a fundraiser for the Bay City Players, a place that both men hold dear.

Jacobs explains, ““It’s important to me because that’s where I met my wife. We were in Oklahoma together and that’s where I first got the courage together to ask her on a date. I’ve done shows with my wife, and we have three boys, and all five of us have been onstage together. The Players has always been great. We’ve made tremendous, good friends. It’s such a place for friendships to develop.” Miller agrees, adding that he has worked with the Players since 1984.

Jacobs and Miller credit their wives with helping them change quickly from one costume to the next.The shows on Dec. 10, 11, 17, and 18 will be at 7:30 pm, and the Dec. 12 and 17 shows will be at 3 pm. Tickets are $20 and are available now at baycityplayers.org or by calling (989) 893-5555.

Miller and Jacobs, self-proclaimed “poor man’s Harvey Korman and Tom Conway,” are both anxiously awaiting next week and the opportunity to raise both funds for the Players and the spirits of those within the community. They are the first to admit that things do not always go as planned onstage, but there is much fun to be had through improvisation and just going with the flow. 

The characters range from a 9-year-old boy to an 80-year-old secretary.“I hope the joy we have onstage translates into the joy the audience has in watching. I hope they are having as much fun as we are having,” says Jacobs.

Miller encourages everyone to get out with friends or family to see the show for a dose of laughter. “The more I read the news, the more I need this kind of stuff. For a couple hours people can just suspend all that stuff and laugh at goofiness.”