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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Christmas with the Crawfords
Still Gives the Audience a Grand Old Time

Christmas with the Crawfords
Hedda Lettuce as Joan Crawford and Jef Valentine as Christina
Mark Sargent and Richard Winchester's Christmas with the Crawfords, which is also called "Mommie Dearest, the Musical with a Holiday Theme," comes home to the Theatre Rhinoceros through January 3, 2004. The legendary story of Joan Crawford began life in 1992 in an old converted fire department horse barn and since then has packed houses in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle. The 90 minute campy musical played at the Chelsea Playhouse in New York in November 2001, where it was nominated for a Drama Desk award.

America's premiere drag comedienne/singer Hedda Lettuce is the epitome of a creepy Joan with a mile high '40s style black wig, too much lipstick and an "evil" smile on her face. (This artist recently celebrated her four year anniversary at Caroline's Club on Broadway and has been called the reigning "Queen" of comedy).

Christmas with the Crawfords takes place on Christmas Eve, 1944, and Joan has recently been "fired" from MGM because they consider her "box office poison" (which was true). Ms. Crawford is up for the lead in the Warner Bros. film Mildred Piece, but horror upon horror, she must take a screen test first (this was also true). "I have never had a screen test in my life!" she explodes. Joan needs to rebuild her public relations, so her friend Hedda Hopper (Drew Scott) decides to broadcast her live show from the star's Brentwood mansion with Joan and kids (Jef Valentine and David Bicha) in tow. Jack Warner is also coming over to discuss the film right after the broadcast.

During the live broadcast, celebrity visitors who apparently have lost their way en route to the big Gary Cooper party next door, come dropping in at the house. To make matters worse, Joan is quite piqued that she has been omitted from her neighbor's guest list.

Among the guests who take over the spotlight to sing their favorite holiday songs are the Andrews Sisters (Trauma Flintstone, Mark Enea, Mark Sargent), Judy Garland (Matthew Martin), Gloria Swanson (Trauma Flintstone), Hattie McDaniel carrying her Oscar (Nikki Starr), Carmen Miranda (Mark Enea) and Ethel Merman (Mark Sargent). Joan's "roommate," a frightening Baby Jane Hudson (Matthew Martin), is also present carrying a covered dish, which contains what else but a rodent.

Hedda Lettuce gives a frightening version of the star and contorts her face to express several emotions such as a fake sadness, a huffy attitude and an evil look toward the two "children." Her manner is very Crawford as I knew her. The highlight of this performance is the recreation of Crawford's dreadful talkie debut in MGM's 1929 Hollywood Review. Ms Crawford did the worst imitation of a tap dance and song number in that film, and Hedda nails that performance down pat. She is also fun to watch dusting the staircase and singing "White Christmas."

Matthew Martin, in grotesque Baby Jane costume and make up, sings to the two "children," "Santa Clause is Coming to Town," adding a little "I've Written a Letter to My Daddy." His yelling the sentence "I'm telling you why" as the two little "tikes" ask "why?" is priceless. Matthew comes back as Judy Garland and is uncannily wonderful as the star. She sings the songs brilliantly, especially "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

Nicki Starr as Hattie MacDaniel stops the show, giving life and luster to the rousing "O Holy Night." This is a big voice happening. Trauma Flintstone is hilarious as Patti Andrews singing "Hanukkah in Santa Monica," and then changes to an elaborate Gloria Swanson, as she appeared in the last scene of Sunset Boulevard, singing an eclectic medley of carols. She captures the mannerisms of Swanson and almost becomes the embodiment of the eccentric star herself. It is an amazing performance.

Mark Enea, who plays Maxine Andrews, has great harmony with the other two sisters and coochie-cooches and sashays later as Carmen Miranda in a big tutti fruity hat singing "Feliz Navidad." Mark Sargent as Ethel Merman really belts out Jerry Herman's "We Need a Little Christmas," which turns into a big conga line. Jef Valentine and David Bicha as the kids are great singing "I Saw Mamma Kissing Santa Claus" and both stay perfectly in childlike character through the whole show.

Donna Drake, who was in the original production of Chorus Line and recently directed Jennifer Holliday's Broadway Concert plus other New York credits, has done a superb job of directing this 90 minute fast paced piece. Everything works like clock work. Tom Shaw as Liberace at the piano is an excellent accompanist. Costumes by Chris Marat and Richard Sanchez are an elaborate concoction, especially Gloria Swanson's apparel. The set by Jerry Radelif, Michail Gorve, Carol Ackeson and Bill Jaeck is pure Hollywood '40s.

Christmas with the Crawfords plays the Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St at Van Ness, San Francisco, CA through January 3, 2004. Tickets can be obtained by calling 415-861-5079 or visiting www.actsf.com.


Photo: Billy Douglas


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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