St. Joan of Bethlehem

Xmas in Brentwood was never so painfully funny

I knew as soon as they walked in the door they weren’t going to last very long. About two minutes before the curtain rose on Christmas With the Crawfords, the hilariously naughty anti-holiday spectacle that’s the theatrical equivalent of a Big Gulp of spiked eggnog, a family of four—mom, dad and two young kids—walked in and took their seats in the back. Sure enough, about ten minutes later, when an eight-foot-tall Shirley Temple—a living drag queen’s nightmare in a polka dot dress and enough crinoline to cover Manhattan—walked on stage, the horrified quartet ran out of the theater faster than you can say “Refund.” It was alternately amusing and tragic in a way only Ms. Crawford herself would have appreciated. Now a holiday tradition after its first, sold-out four-week run in December 2000, Christmas With the Crawfords returns this year to offer an hysterical antidote to the dancing sugarplums, crotchety Scrooges, and living nativities that make the season dark for those of us not necessarily in the pre-fab Christmas spirit. The convoluted plot is a juicy twist on variety shows of old. It’s Christmas Eve 1944, and Joan Crawford (the fabulously talented Joey Arias, who exquisitely imitates Ms. Crawford’s smile/frown and sly glances) is preparing her children Christina (an enchantingly mischievous Jason Scott) and Christopher (a playful Joe Levesque) for a live radio broadcast from her Brentwood home. This being Hollywood, the stars show up to offer season’s greetings in over-the-top song and dance. One of the Andrews Sisters belts out “Spending Hanukkah in Santa Monica” (marvelously rhyming “Rosh Hashana” and “Arizona”); Judy Garland (a brilliantly dead-on Kate Botello) slinks by to tenderly croon “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas;” and Hedda Hopper (a wry Chris March, whose costumes are magnificent) appears with a black felt fortune cookie on her head.

For lovers of Hollywood’s Golden Age, this show is a wet dream in sequins. It respectfully skewers celebrities with freshly campy, joyful arrows. The choicest moments are manifold: golden-voiced Sade Pendarvis, as Hattie McDaniel in full Aunt Jemima regalia, kicks the holy shit out of a gospel-inflected “O Holy Night” and radiantly channels Bette Davis (in white face) in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane; the energetic Brant Kaiwi spits and kicks across the stage in six-inch platform shoes as Carmen Miranda, pulling maracas out of his brassiere; Mark Sargeant crosses his eyes and projects like a fiend as Ethel Merman; the demonic-looking Trauma Flintstone gives Gloria Swanson a high-diva scowl and the grace of an elephant. Every actor plays his role with energy to spare, and it turns Richard Winchester’s vivid set a brighter shade of neon green. There really isn’t a slow moment in the tight 90-minute extravaganza, a testament to the talent of writers Wayne Buidens and Mark Sargeant and director/choreographer Donna Drake. Whether singing wickedly original songs or dancing ridiculously outrageous routines that blend cha-cha and the jitterbug, the cast keeps the pace moving and finds humor in almost every glance or bon mot. For every audience member who didn’t seem to get the references to some of the less recognizable Hollywood names, there were those who laughed heartily throughout. The show most likely will appeal to those who have an appreciation for Tinseltown past or who appreciate drag at its most glamorously referential. Either you find this stuff funny or you don’t.