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Christmas Dearest
THEATER REVIEW
by Scott C. Morgan, Windy City Times
2013-12-11

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Playwright: David Cerda. At: Hell in a Handbag Productions at Mary's Attic, 5400 N. Clark St. Tickets: 800-838-3006; www.handbagproductions.org; $15-$25; $35-$100 VIP. Runs through: Dec. 29

"Here it comes! Here it comes!" spoke a gleeful opening-night audience member at Hell in a Handbag Productions' world premiere comedy Christmas Dearest. Of course, the moment was the much-anticipated scene when Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford ( played by Jeremy Trager ) screams out the Mommie Dearest catchphrase "No Wire Hangers!"

It seems that the reputation of late Hollywood icon Joan Crawford will forever be tarnished by that unintentionally campy film based upon her adopted daughter's vicious tell-all book. So even die-hard fans who profess to love Joan Crawford's film oeuvre, like Christmas Dearest author and Crawford-drag specialist David Cerda, have to deal with Christina Crawford's unflattering take on her mother's personality and parenting skills.

But in a comedy like Christmas Dearest where Joan Crawford becomes a 1940s Ebenezer Scrooge-like taskmaster, that Mommie Dearest bitchiness that legions of gay men have come to love becomes a hilarious asset. Cerda also uses Christmas Dearest to give Joan the chance to take a number of potshots at Christina in the process.

Christmas Dearest shows Crawford in destructive-diva mode as she insists that cast and crew work through Christmas to finish filming Oh Mary!, a wildly inappropriate musical extravaganza based upon the life of the Virgin Mary. And like Scrooge, Crawford gets visited by four spirits who try to show her the error of her ways in the past, present and future.

For fans of past Hell in a Handbag spoofs, Christmas Dearest shows the company in top camp and gender-bending drag form again. True, the script could have used some judicious trimming. Not all of the comic zingers are as choice as they could be, and some of the minor characters could do with some more script development ( particularly MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer as the Ghost of Joan's Present ).

But for the most part, Christmas Dearest offers the diligent cast a chance to show off its campy comedy skills in a number of roles while donning outrageous costumes that run the gamut from Biblical pageantry to 1940s film star finery by designer Kate Setzer Kamphausen. Supporting Cerda's arch and diffident Crawford are some noteworthy performances overseen by director AJ Wright.

Christopher Lewis is a find as an always-hungry, high-pitched-voiced child Christina, while Michael Hampton is demanding as the adult Christina. The invaluable Ed Jones impeccably takes on a lower-key role as the lesbian assistant Carol Ann in love with Vernita ( Jamie Smith ), while Caitlin Jackson is especially cutting as the embittered Ghost of Joan's future.

In Joan's past, Steve Love is especially attractive and wry as Flapper Joan, playing well off of the sloppy lush flapper Olive LaLake of the excitable Alex Grelle.

Designers Lolly Extract and Amber Marsh's aid to the tatty glamor of the show with their postage stamp-sized sets and extra puppetry to help with special effects and to swell out the ranks of the cast.

Chicago is certainly awash with campy holiday shows this season, and Christmas Dearest is certainly one that delivers what fans want. But Christmas Dearest also shares some holiday love that doesn't clash with all of the delicious Crawford bitchiness.


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