Judy's Scary Christmas
By Jay Reiner
Bottom line: Connie Champagne's dazzling
performance as Judy Garland hosting a 1959 TV special makes this show a
true holiday treat.
Court Theatre, West Hollywood
Through Dec. 29
Don't look now but Judy Garland is back in
town, starring in a wonderfully strange show called "Judy's
Scary Little Christmas." This is not an impressionist or
impersonator but the real Judy Garland, in the flesh, acting and singing
her brave, jumpy little heart out just as we remember her.
This flight of fancy will be forgiven by those
fortunate individuals who have already seen Connie Champagne's tour de
force as the legendary Garland. The show
debuted last year at this time to much acclaim. Champagne is so good
that it's possible to believe that Garland has actually been
reincarnated, right down to the last fluttery gesture and vibrato note.
This is not, however, a one-woman show. Garland
is surrounded by such luminaries as Bing Crosby (Sean Smith), Ethel
Merman (Lauri Johnson), Joan Crawford (Joanne O'Brien), Liberace (Don
Lucas) and -- an inspired pairing -- Richard Nixon and Lillian Hellman
(Eric Anderson and Jan Sheldrick).
The occasion -- supposedly -- is a 1959 TV
Christmas special that Garland is hosting by way of making another
comeback. It's a grand idea, filled with slyly amusing possibilities,
many of which writers James Webber and David Church and composer Joe
Patrick Ward fully exploit.
The interesting thing to note about these
particular celebrities is that their private lives were often a mess
and/or they had a secret or devious side at odds with their public
image. Act 1 gives us the sunny side of their personas as Judy greets
them one by one on camera, and everyone is up to their eyebrows (Nixon's
and Crawford's eyebrows together could carpet a small room) in synthetic
holiday cheer and familiar showbiz cliches.
Act 2 takes a sharp turn into the twilight zone
when Death (Mark A. Cross) crashes the party. It turns out that nothing
is really as it seemed to be, least of all Judy herself, and everyone
onstage is badly in need of redemption. There's a touch of "A
Christmas Carol" and "It's a Wonderful Life" in the
proceedings, not to mention an angel in a sailor suit (Dustin Strong)
who may have wandered in from "Angels in America."
Act 2 is a gamble that only partly pays off.
The writers haven't quite figured out how to say something meaningful
about these characters without losing some of the buoyancy and wicked
playfulness of Act 1. A song or two before the splendid finale might
help. In fact, Death could use a number to
call his own.
Cole has staged the show in top-notch fashion, and every cast member
makes a valuable contribution. Ward's original songs serve the material
perfectly, with Champagne's "Angel Star" and "Make It
Shine" both knockouts in the Garland manner. A special nod to the
Nixon-Hellman duet that contains the clever refrain, "Are you now
or have you ever been ... in love?"
JUDY'S SCARY LITTLE CHRISTMAS
James Webber, David Church
and lyrics: Joe Patrick Ward
and lighting designer: James Webber
designer: Jeannine Campi
gowns: Ricky Gilbert
director: Joe Patrick Ward
James Webber, David Church, Joe Patrick Ward
Garland: Connie Champagne
Crosby: Sean Smith
Merman: Lauri Johnson
Nixon: Eric Anderson
Hellman: Jan Sheldrick
Crawford: Joanne O'Brien
Mark A. Cross
Allen Everman II, Heather Holland, Terri Homberg-Olsen, Jonathan Neeley