Chicago Theater Review: CHRISTMAS DEAREST (Hell in a Handbag Productions at Hamburger Mary’s)

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by Lawrence Bommer on December 2, 2013

in Theater-Chicago

A CATTY YULETIDE LAUGH RIOT

Following the well-earned 15-year run of Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer, Hell in a Handbag Productions replaces it with a worthy winner. David Cerda’s wicked holiday musical Christmas Dearest is equally destined for Yuletide glory. This alternately crude and clever caricature, a raucous rouser, combines Cerda’s signature icon/diva/screen goddess/rotten mother Joan Crawford with Dickens’ classic and cautionary Christmas parable about a life loather and the four spirits who deliver redemptive therapy. Cerda’s rollicking 105-minute, two-act result reconfirms the psychological wisdom of Ebenezer’s breakthrough. Plus it’s hilarious.

Jeremy Trager, Steve Love, Michael Jack Hampton, David Cerda, Ed Jones, Christopher Lewis, Alex Grelle, Caitlin Rose, Sydney Genco, Katherine KG Glavin, Michael John Lea, Grant Drager and AJ Wright in CHRISTMAS DEAREST at Mary's Attic.It’s the early 1940s and the MGM superstar is, of course, playing the title role in “Oh Mary,” a bio of the Virgin Mary. Cast against type as an immaculate conception, Joan demands that her melodramatic Mary be greater than God. Off camera, Joan is despised and feared by her underlings: They’re forced to work on Christmas Day, tortured with cheap insults and cheaper salaries. Too miserly to do more than pose for charities, too mean for words, and legendarily vicious to her all-suffering daughter Christina, Joan’s second greatest victim is the Bob Cratchit-like Carol Ann (irrepressibly dour Ed Jones), mother of the crippled and ever-upchucking Teeney Teena (Alex Grelle).

David Cerda in Hell in a Handbag's CHRISTMAS DEAREST.Though Joan orders yet another rewrite of the B-movie script, she’ll soon encounter a much less sacred screenplay—a reprise of her life. Visited by the real Virgin Mary (Sydney Genco as Joan’s Joseph Marley), who inventories her crimes against humanity, Joan is then handed over to Olive, the “Ghost of Christmases Passed Out,” a studio starlet whose career got stunted when Joan slept with a producer and stole her future. Joan is forced to discover her mother’s predictive nastiness as well as Charleston to Flapper Joan (Steve Love), cutting a rug to “Santa, Won’t You Come?” She also learns where her control-freak cleanliness obsession arose (“Mad at the Dirt”).

Michael Miller, Peter Neville, Mikey Moran, Jeremy Trager, Steve Love, Michael Jack Hampton, Aaron Smith, Cat Wilson, Amber Marsh, Jamie Smith, David Cerda, Lolly Extract, Kate Setzer Kamphausen, Ed Jones, Garth Moritz, Christopher Lewis, Jacob Christopher Green, Alex Grelle, Caitlin Rose, Katherine KG Glavin, Sydney Genco, Kevin Reeks, Michael John Lea, Rick Aguilar, David Lipschutz, Cheryl Snodgrass, AJ Wright, Grant Drager, and Chris Carpenter  in CHRISTMAS DEAREST at Mary's Attic.Louis B. Mayer (Michael Hampton) is the present-day Ghost who flies Joan off (via flailing puppet torsos) to melt before the deserving but despondent family of Carol Ann and her dogbody assistant’s devoted lesbian lover, Vermita (Jamie Smith), while the hand-puppet clan deliver the sweetly sappy “What Is the Meaning of Christmas?”

Finally, no less than a futuristic Bette Davis from Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, grotesque in her pancake makeup, warns Joan of such future disasters as Trog, plagues her with a “Space Joan” travesty and reveals a suitably hideous Faye Dunaway (Jeremy Trager) belting out “No More Wire Hangers.” Betrayed by Christina (who she maliciously castigated for pretending to be Queen of the Hot Dog People), Joan realizes that she actually did the ungrateful whelp a future favor: Joan’s toxic mothering rescued Christina from obscurity by giving her one great exposé to cinch her faux fame.

Happily, before it’s too late Joan learns how to truly celebrate the season (“You’d Better Have a Merry Christmas, Dammit!”)–characteristically, it’s not remorse over good deeds not paid forward or bad ones committed that triggers Joan’s reformation: It’s the fear of growing fat. Well, whatever it takes. Inevitably, she’s David Cerda and Michael Jack Hampton in Hell in a Handbag's CHRISTMAS DEAREST at Mary's Attic.reunited with Hangy, the lost toy from her ugly childhood, a google-eyed wire hanger that explains a lot.

It’s amazing how effectively AJ Wright’s rampaging staging can crowd so much pizzazz onto the postage-stamp stage of Hamburger Mary’s Andersonville upper room, Mary’s Attic (with the audience equally cramped into sardine seating and dealing with less than ideal sight lines). Love’s claustrophobic choreography is as classically campy as every mocking minute in Chicago’s newest holiday bash. Cerda’s larger-than-life Joan is a spitfire for the centuries. No coals in this stocking. It’s Ho, ho, ho! all the way for this Joan in a Christmas chestnut-shell.

Alex Grelle, Grant Drager, David Cerda, Katherine KG Glavin, Jeremy Trager and Jamie Smith in Hell in a Handbag's CHRISTMAS DEAREST.

photos by Rick Aguilar Studios

Christmas Dearest
Hell in a Handbag Productions
Mary’s Attic
Hamburger Mary’s, 5400 N. Clark St.
scheduled to end on Dec. 29, 2013
for tickets call 800-838-3006 or visit www.brownpapertickets.com/event/455598

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com

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