no show like Judy’s Scary Little Christmas. There’s no show like
Judy’s Scary Little Christmas. So go ahead and don those ruby
slippers, start clicking those heels together and magically beam
yourself on over to this wickedly funny, surprisingly poignant and,
yes, scary little Christmas show.
Once there, you’ll find yourself transported to Christmas Eve
1959 as a member of a CBS studio audience watching the live taping of
Judy Garland’s comeback musical Christmas special. At Judy’s side
are an array of familiar, famous faces — like Bing Crosby, Liberace,
Ethel Merman, Richard Nixon, Lillian Hellman and Joan Crawford.
As you watch, occasionally prompted to applaud via a sign hanging
over the performers’ heads, you’ll discover that these iconic
figures are different people when the cameras are off and that they
all want the same thing: to be remembered.
The second production of the new Transport Theatre, Judy’s Scary
Little Christmas was written by James Webber and David Church — with
music and lyrics by Joe Patrick Ward — and directed by Linda
Livingston, one of the theater company’s founders and star of its
first production, W;t (for which Livingston was nominated for a
coveted Los Angeles Stage Alliance Ovation Award). The show is a
surprise from the get-go —unique, hilarious and shockingly good. Due
to clever writing and superb performances, the show is easily one of
the top five best shows I’ve seen in Ventura County over the past
Vivien Latham (a native Brit) was dead-on as Garland and, though
she doesn’t have a perfect set of pipes, she’s so right for the
role that it doesn’t matter. She’s been cast as Garland before
and, if you see this show, you’ll know why. The vocal inflections
and mannerisms are a beautiful tribute, and Latham’s funny and
touching portrayal of the consummate pro with a rocky history anchors
the production beautifully.
Likewise, Jeff Wallach makes such a phenomenal Liberace (check out
that constant, genuinely happy grin) that it’s hard to take your
eyes off of him. The man never breaks character, even when Liberace
has nothing to do. Since he’s hard not to watch and he was almost
always wearing that perfect, Liberace million-dollar grin — well, I
dare you to go to this show and not smile when Wallach does. I’m
pretty sure it’s impossible. He’s infectious, and his piano
performance served up more fun than I have ever had in a theater.
Carolyn Freeman Champ is fantastic as Ethel Merman — so
fantastic, in fact, that I knew who she was as soon as she opened her
mouth backstage and without looking at the program. Freeman Champ is
an exceptionally strong vocalist and has so much verve as Merman that,
not unlike Wallach, I had a good time just looking at her. Like her
colleagues, Freeman Champ succeeds in making the character more than a
simple caricature of someone we think we know. In her hands, Merman is
still Merman, but she’s not a cartoon. By the end of the show, we
genuinely feel for these people we’ll never really know, and whose
mammoth careers we’ll never truly fathom.
Seth Oserin makes for a subtle, classy Bing Crosby, who seems to
have a true friendship with Judy. Bing’s often the voice of reason
in the show, and Oserin makes him a stable presence. He’s
representative of the classiness with which celebrities of his time
were seemingly imbued — though he, like his friends, kept secrets
that, once revealed, would cast new light on his life. His interaction
with Judy, when they’re making the Christmas punch, sets the tone
for the entire piece and shows us a fascinating slice of life. It
seems too real to be imagined.
Christopher Fielder, who also choreographed the show, is a
hilarious and surprisingly sympathetic Nixon. Fielder has Nixon’s
cartoonish mannerisms down pat, and isn’t afraid to employ them, but
succeeds amazingly well in making him seem like a real person. His
duet with Patricia Lynn-Strickland, as Lillian Hellman, is one of the
highlights of the show. The pair’s incessant bickering is also
supremely well done and very funny, and Lynn-Strickland’s superb
singing voice was a treat.
In terms of appearance, I can’t say that I am all that familiar
with Hellman, but Lynn-Strickland was perfect as a pissed off lady who
wasn’t buying into the goody-goody style of Judy’s show. She also
reflected the turbulent political climate of her times and, as a
character, provided an interesting juxtaposition to the others.
Kristen Jensen Storey was hysterically funny as Joan Crawford, who
delivered a ridiculous rendition of a Biblical Christmas tale. Her
delightful Crawford was more comedic antics (the Mommy Dearest
references were definitely there) than drama, but she beautifully
managed to make Crawford’s tragic desire for admiration palpable.
I don’t want to give anything away, but know that this show
isn’t what it seems. There are a few surprises along the way,
including a mystery guest wonderfully portrayed by Peter Krause. With
a raucous supporting chorus and a touching/funny performance by Das
Baker (who did double duty as Seaman Russell and Punch), the show has
no weak links. Even the “studio” voiceovers, performed by Michael
Barra, were seamlessly executed.
This Christmas show is scary — and funny, and moving, and
surprisingly thought provoking. You won’t think of any of these
iconic figures in quite the same way again and, most importantly, you
won’t think this show’s portrayal of those old-time Christmas
specials, or the people in them, are cheap imitations played only for
laughs. Judy’s Christmas may be scary, but it’s a frightfully
good, and oddly heartbreaking, time.
Judy’s Scary Little Christmasruns through Dec. 23 at the 451
Media building, 1328 N. Ventura Ave., Ventura. For reservations, call
654-9154. Transport is also looking for a permanent home. E-mail
www.TransportTheatre.com if you have an affordable venue for an