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THEATER REVIEW The Rip Nelson Holiday Spectacular
by Scott C. Morgan, Windy City Times

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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;; 28-$42

Runs through: Dec. 30

This holiday sequel to 2010's Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular, the latest campy Christmas show dreamed up by playwright David Cerda for Hell in a Handbag Productions, sees the welcome return of Ed Jones as the ever-exasperated fictional title character, an amalgam of Paul Lynde, Rip Taylor and Charles Nelson Reilly. At the top of the show, Nelson receives the happy news that Lynde has died ( ! ) and that he will replace him as the star host of a 1982 TV special.

The problem is that Nelson is just out of rehab, and he's terrified of falling off the wagon despite help from his trusty makeup artist friend, Gladys ( Lori Lee ). Nelson also must deal with wacky guest stars like a manic Liza Minelli ( Alexa Castelvecchi ), a closeted Dom Deluise ( Tommy Bullington ), a confused Bruce Jenner ( Chazie Bly ) and the sparring singing trios of The Lennon Sisters ( AJ Wright, Anna Seiburt and Kristopher Bottrall ) and The King Sisters ( Terry McCarthy, Grant Drager and Adrian Hadlock ).

Oh, yes: There's also R&B star Patti LaBelle ( Robert Williams ), Kermit the Frog ( Scott Ray Merchant ) and illusionist Doug Henning ( David Lipschutz ). Henning, in particular, gets lots of visual jokes via his clingy costumes and for how the mustachioed magician resembles a certain Savior of the World.

All of the performers under director/choreographer Steve Love turn out outrageous performances as you'd expect in a Handbag campfest. It's also a visual cavalcade of high-camp fashion courtesy of costume designer Kate Setzer Kamphausen.

Now if only Cerda's script was stronger. With so many supporting characters alternately bitching or singing, the title character often recedes into the background. That's a shame, since Jones' great take on Nelson deserves more stage time.

Cerda's show-within-a-show numbers also don't ring true. They're either too violent or too sacrilegious for family TV viewing. A more interesting approach might have been playing up the wholesomeness of what's meant for TV versus scandalous behind-the-scenes behavior and antics.

Set designer Brad Caleb Lee and sound designer Matthew Reich also don't make much of an effort to provide enough period props or transition music to properly suit the show's setting.

Yet despite these flaws, The Rip Nelson Holiday Spectacular still offers up ample boozy opportunities to laugh your head off. Or if you'd prefer more of the real thing, the remaining Lennon Sisters are actually sharing a concert bill with The Osmond Brothers for The Andy Williams Christmas Extravaganza at North Central College in Naperville on Sunday, Dec. 11. Surely, the camp there will be unintentional.

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