Christmas With Mommie Dearest

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Dec. 5, 2001 at 12:53 PM
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NEW YORK, Dec. 5 (UPI) -- A Christmas show in drag that became a holiday tradition in San Francisco is trying to do the same in New York with every sign of success.

"Christmas With the Crawfords" has settled into the Off-Broadway Chelsea Theater through Jan. 5 for its second year of sold-out performances. The musical ran for eight holiday seasons in San Francisco and has also been seen in Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., and Seattle.

The nearly all-male cast (there is one woman in the show) is an exceptionally talented high camp ensemble, gorgeously costumed and wigged. The show is funny, although the humor runs to the obvious in an amateurish sort of way, and the score runs the gamut of Christmas music -- from carols to pop -- with plenty of special lyrics, many of them quite clever.

The setting is the drawing room of the most beautiful house in Hollywood's Brentwood residential area belonging to none other than Joan Crawford. It is 1944, and Crawford is down on her luck, without a studio contract, and actually facing the embarrassment of having to audition for roles. "Mildred Pierce," the film that restored her to stardom, is still in the future.

In order to keep her name before the public, Crawford has agreed to a Christmas Eve radio interview with gossip columnist Hedda Hopper that includes her two elder children, Christina and Christopher. It was Christina who blew the whistle on Crawford as an abusive mother 35 years later in a biographical book, "Mommie Dearest," that was made into a 1981 film starring Faye Dunaway.

The radio broadcast becomes an occasion for cameo appearances by a string of Hollywood divas who claim to have mistaken Crawford's mansion for Gary Cooper's house next door, where they have been invited to a party, but who actually want a share of Crawford's hour of radio time.

Thus we get the chance to enjoy a string of impersonations of Shirley Temple, the Andrews Sisters, Carmen Miranda, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Garland, Mae West, Ethel Merman, and Gloria Swanson. As a bonus there is Bette Davis playing Baby Jane playing Crawford's actual sister and Edith Head, costume designer to the stars. Almost all sing and dance a number or two.

Crawford is played by Joey Arias, a onetime protégé of Andy Warhol best known for his club impersonation of Billie Holliday. He can blow hot or cold with the Crawford children, almost strangling Christina in a fit of rage, but he doesn't make Crawford as much of a monster as he might have. It's an outrageous portrait, but always mindful that the actress is a woman with career and financial worries as well as compulsive behavior problems.

The wire hanger, which the real Christina claimed was her mother's favorite weapon, is introduced only once and transformed into a Christmas ornament made by the children.

But Crawford does whack away at her rose garden at midnight with garden sheers and is heading for an evergreen as the curtain falls, yelling "Get me my ax!" This caps the most maniacal rendition of "Silent Night" ever sung outside Bedlam.

This is Arias' fourth season as Crawford. The only member of the cast who has stayed with the show since its San Francisco premiere is Mark Sargent, a remarkably versatile female impersonator who plays LaVerne Andrews, Head, West, and Merman in the show. He is particularly good as the trumpet-voiced Merman whose most irritating habit is upstaging everyone.

Sargent is teamed with Brant Kaiwi as Maxene Andrews and Trauma Flintstone as Patty Andrews as three porker songstresses in USO uniforms fresh from entertaining GI Joes at the Hollywood Canteen. They have the Andrews Sisters' routine of stylized gestures and facial contortions down pat, making their performance one of the real highlights of a show that strains to make every number a showstopper.

Flintstone scores solo as a grotesque Swanson who works her vampish mouth like a vacuum cleaner in full power as she repeats all the best lines from "Sunset Boulevard." Kaiwi also contributes a hilarious impersonation of Miranda who has a hard time balancing one of her fruity headdresses that has been topped by a miniature Christmas tree.

Kaiwi is less successful as Baby Jane-Bette Davis, and Chris March fails to hit the right note with his gross characterization of Shirley Temple. He is, however, a delightful Hedda Hopper with an acid-etched countenance peaking out below a concoction of furs and laces that satirizes the god-awful hats that passed as chic chapeaus in the World War II years.

Jason Scott is an appealing Christina, who sometimes stands up to her mother only to be slapped off her feet, and Max Grenyo is suitably craven as the less spirited Christopher. The only woman in the cast, Connie Champagne, has a knack for parody and a good stage voice, but her Hepburn is superior to her Garland, whose personal and vocal charisma eludes her. Perhaps she should play Garland in a broader, drag queen style.

The show was created by Richard Winchester, written by Mark Sargent and Wayne Buidens, and directed and choreographed with a sure hand by Donna Drake, best known for her recent "Wizard of Oz" production at Madison Square Garden.

The two-level set has been smartly designed by Richard Winchester and Michael Grove, who have cleverly overcome the Chelsea Playhouse's space limitations, and the witty costumes -- worthy of Broadway in quality -- are the creations of Chris March, who also designed the fabulous wigs and hats.

The show is a production of the Artfull Circle Theater of San Francisco that has produced nine original musical comedies since 1992 that pay tribute to the Hollywood stars of yesteryear.

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