The show is set in Joan Crawford's Brentwood home as she and her adopted children, Christina and Christopher, prepare for the holidays. Their celebration is to be broadcast on the radio courtesy of Hedda Hopper, and tons of celebs--from Ethel Merman to Judy Garland to the inevitable Bette Davis--drop by to say hi, though most of them are on their way to a party at Gary Cooper's house next door. Rest assured that high drama in high camp form ensues: The portrait of Joan presented here is based on Christina Crawford's characterization of the star, in her book Mommie Dearest, as a borderline psychotic, child-abusing martinet.
Created by Richard Winchester, written by Wayne Buidens and Mark Sargent, and directed by Donna Drake, Christmas With the Crawfords again stars Joey Arias as Miss Joan, Jason Scott as Christina, and Max Grenyo as Christopher. The cast also includes Chris March (who doubles as the show's costume designer), Brant Kaiwi, Connie Champagne, Mark Sargent, and Trauma Flintstone. I recently spoke with director Drake about this unique holiday extravaganza.
THEATERMANIA: The show was such a hit last year. When was it decided to do it again?
DONNA DRAKE: There was never any doubt that this was going to become an ongoing adventure. We thought of last year as sort of an introduction to New York. This year, it's like, "Hey guys, we're back!" Next year, I'm hoping it'll be, "Get out of our way, we're here to say."
TM: When the show was done in San Francisco, did it have some or all of the current cast?
DD: Some. The current company is sort of half New York, half San Francisco.
TM: Was Joey Arias in it in San Francisco?
DD: No, last year in New York was the first time he did it. And that's when I came aboard, too. [The Artful Circle Theater] wanted to make that New York step and the one thing they needed was direction. So I was brought in, and I fell madly in love with all of them. I had been sent videotapes and a script up front but I had not seen any of the productions in San Francisco. I got to go at the show without any pressure along the lines of, "This is the way we used to do it."
TM: When you did get your hands on it, what did you feel your job was?
DD: The show really needed direction. When they did it in San Francisco, it was more of a revue--you know, "Let's have a good time and play around." Now, it has become a highly choreographed show; every beat is staged. And we've added more technical elements to it this year: We have a better lighting system and a much better set. Last year, there were a lot of technical compromises that we had to deal with. The Grove Street is a sweet little theater, very charming, but it was a difficult space to work in. Did you see the show there?
DD: Then you understand the insanity of it.
TM: We have to talk about the costumes...
DD: Aren't they delicious? I am so in love with Chris March. We've been talking a lot over the last couple of months and we've added some new costumes this year. We're even making some of the costumes do staging of their own, so to speak. Some of then are rigged to do tricks. We have no shame! Oh, and we've got all new wigs this year, too.
TM: Joey Arias is your star. When I saw the show last year, I felt that even though he's not the most brilliant acting technician in the world, he definitely has a lot of stage magnetism.
DD: That's a great word to use for Joey. He and I have worked very closely on making the character more honest, less affected this time around. We're taking a whole different approach to Joan--sort of discovering the true, evil side of her. It's fun to keep exploring. We do want to make this a yearly event.
TM: That would be terrific: an antidote to the usual holiday fare.
DD: Exactly. Enough with A Christmas Carol!
TM: By the way--is Christina Crawford aware of the show.
DD: Yes, she is. She saw it in San Francisco. As a matter of fact, we have a picture of the entire cast with her. She has a marvelous sense of humor and she's been quite supportive.
TM: That must be weird, in a way. I mean, when she originally wrote the book, it presumably was meant to be taken seriously. Then the movie turned into a total camp-fest...
DD: ...and we have taken it one step further in camp and absurdity. If we can't laugh at ourselves, who can we laugh at?
TM: You've had some cast changes, yes?
DD: Yes, but the great news is that Connie Champagne is back with us as Judy Garland, at least for the first month; her mother is quite ill, but I promised her that I would get her home for the holidays.
TM: Well, I can't wait to see the show again. I don't have to tell you how the audiences ate it up last year.
DD: Yeah, they had a ball. And this year, I think, we're going to knock their socks off.