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A CurtainUp Review
Christmas With the Crawfords
by Brad Bradley

Appealing to lovers of a high camp view of Hollywood glamour of 60 years ago, Off-Off-Broadway's answer to the current main stem revival of The Women is the Artfull [sic] Circle Theatre production of Christmas with the Crawfords, an affectionate yet none-too-flattering look at movie icon Joan with her children as they greet a bevy of uninvited over-the-top female show biz contemporaries on Christmas eve in 1944.

All the visitors apparently have lost their way en route to the Gary Cooper party next door. Crawford, while piqued that she was omitted from Coop's guest list, is driven by a sense that her film career was hitting a snag, and is determined to rebuild her PR by going on the radio, kids in tow, to fight the studios with her presumably adoring public.

Does this sound like an interesting play, satire, or parody? Actually, it could have been, but with central roles given to definitive non-actors like Joey Arias as a domineering and egocentric Joan and Chris March as both a much overgrown hedonistic Shirley Temple (chasing booze and boys at 16) and a trailer park version of legendary columnist and radio host Hedda Hopper, this show lacks comic timing and finesse at its core. The show is most enjoyable for its parade of wondrous women's wear, the like not seen on a small stage since Howard Crabtree's When Pigs Fly several seasons back.

While ladies' wear (created by the same Chris March) is the unquestionable star of this piece, in days of more widespread partying with substances illegal and otherwise, a reviewer might have penned that the show itself would be more fun seen while under the influence. More's the pity, for the workmanlike script might shine in the hands of better actors. To be fair, several of the supporting cast (yes, I know they are all stars) are terrific fun, especially Connie Champagne (in the program called "the original 'drag' queen trapped in a woman's body'" as a totally convincing Judy Garland. (Unfortunately I cannot praise Ms. Champagne's one-note Katharine Hepburn).

Mark Sargent shines in several roles, especially as Mae West and Ethel Merman. A natural charm giggles from Brant Kiwi effectively channeling Carmen Miranda. This Carmen must make her entrance on the low-ceiling stage nearly on her knees to avoid decapitating the Christmas tree atop her usual already high fruit bowl headdress. Trauma Flintstone shines as a zaftig yet appropriately haughty and heavily bejeweled cartoon of silent film goddess Gloria Swanson in regal black, gold, and tiger skin. Unfortunately, Jason Scott as Crawford's daughter Christina (of the notorious tome Mommie, Dearest) and Max Grenyo as her brother Christopher are simply tiresome, although Scott does some mean gymnastics on the overstuffed furniture. Grenyo is saddled with an embarrassing wig which causes him, playing age eight, to look like a short old man in short pants.

The actors playing guest stars all have character changes, three of them bringing us musical merriment in a plus size version of the period's essential girl trio, the Andrew sisters. In an effort that this holiday fest not exclude non-Christians, these gals sing of "Hanukah in Santa Monica." Less effective is an unnecessary appearance by Bette Davis in the guise of Baby Jane Hudson, to whom Crawford played sister in a film two decades later. In a bow to the production's focus on fashion, legendary costumer Edith Head has a fleeting cameo that will be lost on nearly anyone not sharply attuned to luminaries of the rag trade.

The production is a tribute to excess, working wonderfully in March's gowns, wigs and hats. Joan's hair easily outdoes any Ann Miller send-up, with her endless tailored coif having room for an entire neighborhood of rats. The script's festival of anachronisms will have film and music buffs constantly scratching their heads about the true time of events that here neatly squeeze details from a quarter century into a single night. A couple of inaccuracies that will require of African-American attendees in particular a sense of patience are an onstage portrait of Joan that looks more like a bleached version of the far prettier Lena Horne and an appropriation of an Eartha Kitt signature song by Mae West.

If your holidays will be cheered by Joan Crawford singing "White Christmas " as she dusts a staircase, or a grinning, gregarious Ethel Merman leading a rousing Jerry Herman song (yes, we all know Jerry himself was still in short pants in 1944) or (best vocalizing in the show) Judy Garland offering "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Winter Wonderland" ," Christmas with the Crawfords" may be the seasonal tonic you need.

CHRISTMAS WITH THE CRAWFORDS Created by Richard Winchester
Written by Wayne Buidens and Mark Sargent
Directed and choreographed by Donna Drake
Cast: Joey Arias, Linda Bulgo, Connie Champagne, Trauma Flintstone, Max Grenyo, Brant Kaiwi, Chris March, Mark Sargent and Jason Scott.
Musical direction, arrangements and additional lyrics by Joe Collins, Mark Sargent
Set Design: Richard Winchester, Michael Grove
Lighting Design: Kevin Levis
Costume Design: Chris March
Sound Design: Murmod, Inc.
Running time: 80 minutes (no intermission).
Chelsea Playhouse, 125 W. 22 St.t (6th/ 7th Aves), 212/439-5135
11/8/2001-12/30/01; opened 11/21/2001.
Reviewed by Brad Bradley based on November 18 evening press preview
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