This Artfull Circle Theatre production ("created by Richard Winchester, written by Wayne Buidens and Mark Sargent") is a fanciful takeoff on Hollywood gossip maven Hedda Hopper's live radio broadcast from movie star Joan Crawford's Brentwood Mansion on Christmas Eve in 1944. The imperious Joan and her adopted children, Christina and Christopher--a family whose epic dysfunctions are known to millions through Christina Crawford's book Mommy Dearest and its subsequent film version--receive a houseful of celebrity guests, most of whom are on their way to a big bash at Gary Cooper's house next door. Never the warmest, most emotionally stable woman on the planet, Crawford is especially volatile on this occasion because of an outrageous indignity: She has been asked by Warner Bros. to do a screen test for the film Mildred Pierce. So things are touchy at the Crawford digs. And, as her good friend Bette Davis might say, the night gets bumpier as it goes along.
I have no idea which celebrities, if any, turned up in Joan's living room for the actual Hopper broadcast; but Christmas with the Crawfords is a veritable smorgasbord of divas who sweep in to perform a number or two for the radio audience. (The performers sing live to taped tracks.) Of course, these fabulous women are played by men, with one significant exception (see below). Each actor has multiple assignments, and that only adds to the show's hilarity. The stars are presented not as real people, heaven forbid, but in the composite guises of their most famous film roles--even though most of those roles were played well after 1944. So Katharine Hepburn enters as Eleanor of Aquitaine from The Lion in Winter to sing an abbreviated version of "The 12 Days of Christmas." Bette Davis as Baby Jane Hudson shows up to screech "I've Written a Letter to Santa" and to rekindle her sadistic rivalry with Crawford from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Judy Garland, in her "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" getup from Meet Me in St. Louis (which was actually released in 1944), sings "Winter Wonderland." The Andrews Sisters perform--what else?--"Don't Sit Under the Christmas Tree." Ann Miller, in her red "Too Darn Hot" leotard from Kiss Me, Kate, turns "Sleighride" into a tap number. And so on.
Aside from these and other musical numbers, there are countless allusions to the divas' movies to be found here; it seems that every quotable line from every classic and/or camp classic film ever made is uttered at some point during Christmas with the Crawfords. One might question the originality of such an approach, but it's foolhardy to do so when the audience is shrieking with laughter.
The cast is exemplary. As Joan, Joey Arias can't really act or sing in the traditional sense of those terms, but he is so perfect in look and demeanor that it scarcely matters (see photo). With their deer-caught-in-the-headlights facial expressions, Jason Scott and Max Grenyo are terrific as Christina and Christopher. Though all of the guys playing the divas are excellent, Matthew Martin deserves special mention for his 100% accurate recreation of Bette Davis as a braying Baby Jane. And Connie Champagne--a real woman!--brilliantly captures the young Garland's slightly breathless, catch-in-the-throat delivery of screen dialogue. (Champagne plays Maxene Andrews as well, while Martin also appears as Ann Miller and Hepburn.) The remaining drag queens on magnificent display here are Chris March (Shirley Temple/Hedda Hopper), Mark Sargent (LaVerne Andrews/Edith Head/Carmen Miranda/Ethel Merman), and Trauma Flintstone (Patty Andrews/Gloria Swanson).
Christmas with the Crawfords would honestly be worth the price of admission if only for the wigs by Chris March and the costumes by March, Dana Peter Porras, and Richard Sanchez. Crawford/Arias' mile-high, classic '40s do is awe-inspiring, as are Ann Miller's industrial-strength coif and Shirley Temple's curly top. (Garland's Meet Me in St. Louis wig is also dead-on in style, though the color is off.) Wardrobe-wise, the getups for Miranda, Davis/Baby Jane, and Miss Crawford herself are unforgettable. And when costumer-to-the-stars Edith Head suddenly shows up late in the proceedings, we know who she is even before she's introduced, because March, Porras, and Sanchez have nailed her hair and clothing to the last detail.
Christmas with the Crawfords is scheduled to close on December 30, but the buzz on the show is so great that it might have run forever if it weren't so holiday-specific. Let's hope it at least becomes an annual Christmas tradition, like fruitcake.
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