Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Seattle

Hilarity and Unexpected Heartstrings Zing at
Judy's Scary Little Christmas

ArtsWest

Also see David's review of A Christmas Story


Kate Jaeger and Lisa Mandelkorn
You remember that Judy Garland Christmas special "Judy's Merry Little Christmas" from 1959? No, not the 1963 episode of her TV series, the special she did with Bing Crosby, Ethel Merman, Liberace, Joan Crawford, Lillian Hellman and Richard M. Nixon. Wait you, say? What?? No, you haven't crossed over into "The Garland Zone," you're just watching a diabolically clever musical revue, Judy's Scary Little Christmas. It's a sort of cocktail party where faux Hollywood holiday cheer (see the Lawrence Welk, Bing Crosby or especially Andy Williams Christmas family shows on YouTube to secure a launching point) is suddenly replaced by dark ruminations of mortality. That of these long gone icons, and our own. With a clever book by David Church and Jim Webber, catchy, almost familiar songs (all originals, not a "White Christmas" or "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in the bunch) by Joe Patrick Ward, and direction and choreography by Troy Wageman, who must have been reincarnated from some old M-G-M dancing chorus somewhere over Judy's rainbow to create such smashing straightforward camp mixed with pathos, Judy's Scary Little Christmas at ArtsWest is the holiday smash of the season for the non-faint of heart, and easily one of my 10 favorite shows in Seattle this year.

There is one other guest at Judy's Television City in Hollywood recreated house, but not a welcome or invited one. I will spoil no more of the macabre fun, but will now move on to the nearly pitch perfect cast. As our Judy, Lisa Mandelkorn, a real find from the opera world, actually sings with a prettier voice than Garland ever had, and not quite as much pathos. But her acting! When a still and centered Judy is just sitting in disbelief watching La Crawford gesticulate or Nixon speechify, you see Judy Garland and no one else but, looking out of those lovely eyes. As Garland high steps through numbers with a group of clearly agog chorus boys (marvelous Bo Mellinger, Joel Domenico and Jordan Jackson), all the zest of the old TV spectaculars comes through, and songwriter Ward opens and closes the show with two particularly good ones: "Back in Christmas Town" and "Let it Shine."

There is a hilarious Irish Christmas brew of a duet for Judy and Der Bingle, with Brian Lange an ideal Crosby look and sound alike who reincarnates the complex gent with wry humor and affection. Kate Jaeger is a zaftig, merry and manic Merman in a tropical get-up and singing the wacky "Mauna Loa Hula Holiday." David Caldwell may look more like Tommy Tune than Liberace, but otherwise hits big in the role and with his featured solo "The Candy Cane Twist." Pat Sibley makes a regal, sharp Hellman, Ricky Pope a surprisingly sympathetic and well observed Nixon, and the two have a great way with two very unlikely vocalists dueting a bouncy Cole Porterish "Have You Ever Been in Love?" Ryan McCabe is in and out of the mania that was Joan Crawford, but how many times can one be expected to laugh at Joan's "Mommy Dearest" image?

Christopher Mumaw's scenic design is dead on accurate in its take on the actual '63 show, again on YouTube (which itself is scary and poignant with Joey Luft struggling to sing "Where is Love?" and a random Charleston dancing male chorus popping in and out), and Ryan Dunn supplies a most atmospheric lighting design. Rachel Wilkie's costumes are largely great, especially Judy, Joan and Liberace's outfits (but where is the '50s Merman high hair?). Christopher DiStefano offers the right touch in his musical direction of a small but slick offstage band.

I can't say enough about what a bracing surprise this unique show is. Reserve tickets now and see for yourself. Rumor has it Ethel reveals a real big "secret" about Mary Martin.

Judy's Scary Little Christmas runs through December 28, 2014, at ArtsWest Playhouse, 4711 California Ave SW. For tickets go to www.artswest.org.


Photo: Michael Brunk

- David Edward Hughes




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