So good, it’s scary
Transport Theatre beams us back to 1959

~ By STACEY WIEBE ~

 

Celebrity guests — including Liberace (Jeff Wallach), Judy Garland (Vivien Latham)

and Bing Crosby (Seth Oserin) — celebrate a scary little Christmas.

 

here’s 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 two years.

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. Brilliant.

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 100-seat theater.

12-07-2006

 

Copyright © 2005, 2012 James Webber, David Church & Joe Patrick Ward