Bing Crosby meets Nixon and more in Rarely Done’s curdled black comedy Judy’s Scary Little Christmas
By James MacKillop
When you hear that ace female impersonator Jimmy Wachter is appearing as Judy Garland in a show about an imagined 1959 Christmas TV special with celebrity guests, you should expect a parade of good campy fun. And there is some of that. Then again, note the second word in the title: Judy’s Scary Little Christmas. We may never have heard before of authors James Webber and David Church, or composer-lyricist Joe Patrick Ward, who opened this show in Los Angeles nearly 10 years ago. But collectively their sensibility has much in common with movie director Tim Burton. If Judy’s fictional celebrity special had even taken place, it too could have been called The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Dead celebrity imitation might be a big part of Judy’s Scary Little Christmas, but that’s not what it’s about and not what makes it scary. If Jimmy Wachter (who nabbed a Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) award for Barbra Streisand) had not wanted to do Judy and put so much into it, Rarely Done Productions, which is presenting this show at Jazz Central, 441 E. Washington St., would never have taken it on.
As Wachter has been highly visible on the local scene, most people know that his body is as lean and lithe as a Fokine dancer, and he’s as capable of reshaping himself as the comic book Plastic Man. He has smallish feet and narrow calves that, when shaved, look female. Up top requires more work. That nose, perfect for Streisand, never makes us think of Garland’s little button. Thus he compensates by giving us everything else: the tremulous speaking voice and the fluttering hands, implying Wachter spent many hours studying vintage films, probably A Star is Born (1954). Wachter also gives us the shifting tones in Garland’s persona: the needfulness, the hyper-vulnerability and yet, overall, the professionalism. The premise is that the fading star, then only 37, has contracted with CBS-TV for a Christmas special in which six disparate celebrities will stop by and make nice on a homey-looking set. Such hokeyness once occurred, of course, giving us the memorable 1977 holiday duet between aging Bing Crosby and a young, clean-cut David Bowie. Wachter’s Judy eagerly plays along, annoyed when some of the visiting stooges break out of form and interrupt her.
The falsity of the premise makes for a running joke, especially in the first act, about what can be said on- or off-camera, signaled to us not only by the “On-Air” light but by the truth-defying brightness of TV lights. After Bing Crosby (Derek Potocki) follows the script and stirs together a supersweet Christmas grog, he waits for the signal so he can spit it out. Then he can wash out his mouth with good Jameson’s Irish Whiskey, which Judy happily shares.
As soon as we see the anomalous lineup of guests it looks like an excess of a TV booker’s zeal, after Crosby comes Liberace (Josh Smith), Ethel Merman (Tamaralee Shutt), Richard Nixon (Brian Pringle), Lillian Hellman (Kate Huddleston) and Joan Crawford (Garrett Heater). We sense a kind of Agatha Christie challenge: What could possible bring these people together? It’s not that they’re easy to mimic (yes, Nixon and Crawford are) because few people remember what playwright Lillian Hellman looked like. She was tall and ugly whereas Huddleston is short and cute. Crosby peaked some decades before 1959, but all were in good shape that year, most of all Merman, who was starring on Broadway as Mama Rose in Gypsy. The full answer to their shared dirty secrets will not be worked out until the second act.
Much of the first act is lengthy exposition, some of which calls for a master’s degree in pop culture references. You have to know, for example, the expression “cry all the way to the bank” really originates with Liberace, and that the title of two of Hellman’s very serious plays, The Children’s Hour and Toys in the Attic, could plausibly be mistaken for something other than what they are.
If you judged Judy’s Scary Little Christmas only on the quality of the impersonations, you’d be misled about how effective the show is. Among the better are Shutt’s industrial-strength klaxon as Merman, put to the test with sustained notes. Pringle’s mellifluous baritone might be too rich for Nixon, but he nails Tricky Dick’s needfulness and excruciating clumsiness, perhaps the most maladroit public figure of the last century. And then there’s Heater’s Joan Crawford, written to steal the show. Heater lives it up, and not just with excess lipstick and eyebrow pencil. The riotous Nativity speech Webber and Church have written for Joan Crawford, filled with lusts and obsessions from her movies as well as many of her titles, could stand by itself. Heater should keep it in mind as a party piece for Christmases to come.
In the second act, a seventh guest, uninvited, crashes the party. While not quite the Ghost of Christmas yet to come, this guest is there to tell the rest and Judy herself what sadness and ignominy awaits. What follows is an astounding turn for a comedy, an interlude blending all the fun of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit with Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death.
Following George M. Cohan’s dictum, however, Judy’s Scary Little Christmas somehow leaves us all smiling, the entire cast (except the seventh guest) dressed in holiday white. The musical accompaniment pulls bits and pieces from traditional (“Silent Night”) and Judy Garland fare (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), but relies mostly on Ward’s original compositions, neatly polished by music director Josh Smith to sound like generic 1950s hits. The opening “Back in Christmas Town,” with the supporting cast of “Merry Makers,” Sara Weiler, Kaleigh Pfohl, David Cotter and Liam Fitzpatrick, sounds like it might have been on the Lucky Strike Presents Your Hit Parade.
Director Dan Tursi calls his company Rarely Done for good reason. Few companies anywhere would attempt this show, with its refusal to be ingratiating and its devilish shifts of tone. Packed houses greeted the opening weekend, proving Syracuse has more adventuresome audiences than people thought when Rarely Done was founded.
This production runs through Saturday, Dec. 10. See Times Table for information.