Jeffrey Hatcher

Beat Those Christmas Blues

Review of Christmas on the Rocks, TheaterWorks

What are some of your favorite memories of the Christmas holidays? If the list includes such things as the black boot of Santa waving in the face of a young boy before he plummets down a slide at a department store North Pole, or a cartoon boy with a blanket intoning words about the true meaning of Christmas, or the beleaguered manager of a Saving and Loan fixing to jump off a bridge into icy waters, or a sickly boy enlivened by “the pudding singing in the copper,” or a young girl accosted by giant mice, or a cartoon snowman cavorting as the “baddest belly-whopper in the business,” or a distraught young reindeer facing cruel taunts due to his beaming nose, then TheaterWorks has the show for you.

With Christmas on the Rocks, director Rob Ruggiero has brought together different playwrights to create dialogues for characters from Christmas classics. This year, the list entails A Christmas Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, A Christmas Carol, and A Charlie Brown Christmas. For many of us, Christmas has taken its tone from such entertainments for as long as we can remember. So, we might ask ourselves, how would those familiar characters experience Christmas now, in 2018?

The show’s title “on the rocks” is apropos. Not only have the holidays become rocky terrain—which they pretty much were even in the original stories—but the entire action of the play takes place in a cozy little corner bar, presided over by Tom Bloom as the bartender. If the setting and the pace of featured character actor skits doesn’t bring to your mind Art Carney as the barkeep on the Jackie Gleason Show, then you’re probably younger than I am. The shtick is familiar, the exchanges between each guest and the barkeep anything but.

The jokes tend to assume familiarity with the shows from which these characters originate, which is fair enough. Playing off to the side on big screens, before the play starts, is a loop of clips from the requisite features to help jog your memory, should that be necessary. Each respective playwright takes the material and runs with it, adding absurdist humor, many a knowing chuckle, and some outright hilarity. There’s also a touch of the Christmas blues throughout so that the show caters to those of us who find Christmas—in its commercial insistence—a bit too incessant.

The Bartender (Tom Bloom), Ralph (Randy Harrrison) in TheaterWorks’ Christmas on the Rocks

The Bartender (Tom Bloom), Ralph (Randy Harrrison) in TheaterWorks’ Christmas on the Rocks

This year, the effervescent Randy Harrison—of the TV show Queer as Folk—plays all the male guests, while Jenn Harris—a talented comedienne who puts me in mind of the irrepressible Ruth Buzzi—plays the females. John Cariani’s “All Grown Up” starts things off with the Ralphie facing the fact that he’s a fictional character everyone knows thanks to “the movie.” Because the story of Ralph is so richly told in the original, there’s plenty to work with. Harrison is a believable grown-up Ralphie, getting laughs from his true feelings about that bunny suit.

Zuzu (Jenn Harris)

Zuzu (Jenn Harris)

The part of Zuzu in It’s a Wonderful Life has less to offer, but Jacques Lamarre rises to the occasion with “A Miserable Life” which lets us see the grown Zuzu, forever haunted by those damn bells that signal an angel getting wings. Her paranoia, in Harris’ hands, is quite funny in a quirky way. Harris really comes into her own with “My Name is KAREN!” which she co-wrote with Matthew Wilkes. Karen, you might not remember, is the little girl who accompanies Frosty through his life and death adventures in the Rankin/Bass cartoon. Here, she has become an online celebrity of sorts, taking the followers of her video postings on a retributive journey that includes tying up the hapless bartender with Christmas lights. She’s a memorably psychotic rendering of the Christmas spirit, complete with screen projections from her cell phone, which she speaks to as an audience and trusted confidante. Then, as the girl from the Nutcracker ballet, Harris turns in a frenetic performance in Edwin Sánchez’s “Still Nuts About Him,” complete with comic Russian accent, some not so chaste moves, and a great deadpan.

The Bartender (Tom Bloom), and Clara (Jenn Harris)

The Bartender (Tom Bloom), and Clara (Jenn Harris)

Harris’ best role is as the put-upon dentist Hermie from Rankin/Bass’s stop-motion puppet production of the Rudolph story, adapted from the famous song. In Jeffrey Hatcher’s “Say It Glows,” the character of Hermie, a bit awkward and whiny in the original show, hasn’t changed much. But he is much more “out” than he was as a kid, understandably, and that’s the main takeaway: that wanting to be a dentist wasn’t the only reason Hermie was a “misfit,” and Harris does this queerer version of Hermie proud, complete with a “Tooth Fairy” T-shirt. Here, growing up and coming of age seems an improvement rather than a downer. It does get better.

The Bartender (Tom Bloom), Hermie (Randy Harrison)

The Bartender (Tom Bloom), Hermie (Randy Harrison)

Something maybe not so true for the grown-up Tiny Tim, who Harris plays like a Cockney who might once have joined a punk band. In Theresa Rebeck’s “God Bless Us Every One,” Tim is down on the whole Christmas bit, seeing Ebenezer as an old gent who cracked and went about handing out money recklessly. Here, the dialogue with the bartender proves the most meaningful. Often, he’s merely a genial looker-on at someone who briefly takes over the place, but with Tiny Tim he gets to debate the merits of the Scrooge story, which shows, yet again, that Dickens is a hard man to beat when it comes to Christmas.

The Bartender (Tom Bloom), Tiny Tim (Randy Harrison)

The Bartender (Tom Bloom), Tiny Tim (Randy Harrison)

The Charlie Brown segment—“Merry Christmas, Blockhead,” by Jacques Lamarre—is something of an anticlimax, if only because a soured Charlie Brown seems less suitable than the other transformations, and being married to Lucy a bit of a stretch. His unexpected encounter with a special someone gives us a romantic close, a nice way to end, but with less of the edginess that sustained the more offbeat laughs.

A fun shot of cheer—with some of the bite of holiday hangovers from yesteryear—Christmas on the Rocks, like the shows it recalls, is the stuff of a collective fantasy that’s been dancing in our heads like sugarplums at least since “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Love Christmas or dread it, this show has a place in your holiday traditions.

 

Christmas on the Rocks
An Offbeat Collection of Twisted Holiday Tales by
John Cariani
Jenn Harris & Matthew Wilkas
Jeffrey Hatcher
Jacques Lamarre
Theresa Rebeck
Edwin Sánchez
Conceived and Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Set Design: Michael Schweikardt; Costume Design: Alejo Vietti; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Sound Design: Michael Miceli; Wig Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

Cast: Tom Bloom, Jenn Harris, Randy Harrison

TheaterWorks
November 27-December 23, 2018

The Star's Turn

The renovated Long Wharf Theatre has debuted with The Killing of Sister George, featuring a star turn by Kathleen Turner.  The play seems a curious choice: an all-female play that recreates a somewhat dated view of lesbian relationships from the England of 1964.  The original play, by Frank Marcus, has been adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher to lend a bit more nuance to the characters, but without altering its most troublesome fact: it’s set in a Britain still enamoured of its wireless broadcasts, which were full of sentimental evocations of a world where Sister George—the character Turner’s June Buckridge plays on a BBC Radio Programme—is a beacon of good works and selfless behaviour in a rural village.  The humour of the play—which does not really aim at camp—relies upon a wry dryness in evoking British quirks that simply doesn’t translate well to an all-American cast in our day.  Consequently, the play, as directed by Turner, feels a bit compromised, as if in search of a new unifying perspective that eludes it.

The point of the play, though, still manages to come through, once we get past the faux British mannerisms, and that point has to do with a tough-as-nails, matronly star getting her comeuppance from the BBC for fractious behavior and, what’s worse, losing her role as the beloved Sister George simply because the powers that be insist upon a change.  The arbitrariness of fortune afflicts everyone, even prized actors—a lesson that may have attracted Turner to the part.  Her version of June is brash and barking.  Some of the best bits are delivered with the cutting swagger of Alan Bates at his most truculent, and the strength of the role is in the fact that June never drops her caustic assessment of the weaknesses of those around her.  Despite the mawkishness of Sister George, the character that has been her claim to fame, June has no tolerance for the bathetic in day-to-day life.

The play is built upon the tension of liking someone we’d rather dislike—though the role never quite gets to the “love to hate” level, if only because Turner is so deft at exposing June’s insecurities.  Her flat-mate and paramour, Alice, aka Childie (Clea Alsip), is a case in point: she’s a child-woman much older than she seems, preferring a somewhat anxious life as June’s whipping-girl and factotum to life fending for herself.  The conceit that Marcus/Hatcher explore is that co-dependence is a compromise that will eventually suck away one’s life (Alice) or leave one exposed to an emotional comeuppance (June).  The two play off each other well, with Alsip’s Childie obviously cannier than June gives her credit for; blinded by Childie’s willingness to be an abused “bottom” to her own bullying “top,” June little suspects her paramour may outgrow her.

The most affecting moment from the point of view of the love story between June and Childie is when the two, decked out for a fancy dress ball, cavort in the guise of Laurel and Hardy.  We glimpse not only archetypes for their love-hate relationship, but also the camaraderie of their life together.  Of course, it’s shortly after this that things take a turn for the worse.

The villain in the piece, from June’s point of view, is Mrs. Mercy Croft (Betsy Aidem, making the most of it), a hatchet-woman of the BBC—and also a radio personality in her own right for her broadcast bromides—whose clipped politesse is anathema to June, and who manages to woo Childie with flattery of her literary gifts.  One suspects that Marcus has seen this sort of thing enough—a younger prize up for grabs between wheedling elders—to give it the right tone of arch inevitability.  The satisfaction of the play, in the end, is in seeing June not cave-in.  Turner—as director and actress—has the guts to let the play maintain the principles of June’s scorn.

The set and costumes—as is generally the case when Long Wharf goes for ‘period’—are quite good.  June and Childie live in a kind of over-stuffed world where the older woman’s trophies and plaques vie for space with the younger woman’s collection of Victorian dolls (June likes to threaten horrible fates for one called Emmeline whenever Childie gets out of line).  Costuming for Turner is particularly appropriate, as she sets off twinges of memory recalling Simone Signoret in the Sixties.

The Long Wharf continues to develop its penchant for middling comedies that might be spinnable into something more.  Here, the sadomasochistic touches are neither campy nor creepy enough to give us much purchase on what Marcus had in mind.  The Killing of Sister George is not entirely bloodless—there’s a great speech from Mercy, late in the play, about the BBC’s wisdom in choosing its sacrificial victims, and one imagines that anyone whose career is not immune to the whims of management will identify with June’s final utterances. Bracing and brash, and never bathetic, Turner’s Sister George is worth catching.

The Killing of Sister George has made a “killing” in selling more tickets on one day (November 26th, Cyber Monday) than at any time in the Long Wharf’s history.  A star gracing the stage at the Long Wharf's newly renovated C. Newton Schenck Theatre is reason enough, perhaps, for the flood of interest.  The seating is greatly improved and the lobby and façade are more graceful, but Stage II also hit a new record with Satchmo at the Waldorf in the fall.  Unlike certain larger venues in the vicinity, the Long Wharf is more than ever the place—on both stages—to see great acting up close and comfortably.

Kathleen Turner in The Killing of Sister George By Frank Marcus Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher Directed by Kathleen Turner

Set Design: Allen Moyer; Costume Design: Jane Greenwood; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Sound Design/Composer: John Gromada; Miss Turner Wig Design: Paul Huntley; Dialect Coach: Deborah Hecht; Stage Manager: Bryce McDonald; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Casting: Pat McCorkle Casting, Ltd.

Photographs by T. Charles Erickson, courtesy of Long Wharf Theatre

Long Wharf Theatre November 28-December 23, 2012

It's Got That Swing

Ella Fitzgerald was known as “the First Lady of Song” for a reason.  Her way with a lyric was impeccable, her delivery making the listener discover nuances in even the most well-known standard (her versions of the Cole Porter songbook are for me the best of both worlds: Ella at her best and Porter rendered superlatively).  And her improvisational ability – her famed scatting – was likewise incomparable. One of the interesting moments in the show Ella the Musical, currently playing at the Long Wharf, is when she hits upon scat as a way to counteract the charge that her precise diction makes her sound “too white.”  Indeed, the best aspects of the show are such moments that recreated the feel of a performer’s life, trying to cope with what “the audience wants.”

In the first half of the show Ella (Tina Fabrique) is rehearsing with her band and speaks to us, the audience, as though we’re her confidantes as she, a very private person, tries to wrestle with her manager’s idea that she provide some revealing “patter” as part of her performance.  In the second half we’re treated to a ficitonalized dramatization of a show Ella played in Nice shortly after the death of her half-sister whose child Ella had raised, though with much absenteeism, as her own.

There was some dramatic tension in going from “insiders” at the backstage session to a generalized audience treated to the professional stage Ella.  What didn’t work, for me, was the dualism of the vulnerable and forthright Ella of the first half and the more vapidly entertaining Ella of the second half.  And when she had to breakdown and cry on stage it felt to me like a betrayal of the controlled and personally self-effacing Ella we got to know in the first half.  In other words, the breakdown seemed like “show biz” though ostensibly it wasn’t meant to be.

But that’s just me quibbling about the script.  And the script is incidental to what makes this a great show to go to.  It’s the music – provided by George Caldwell (piano), Rodney Harper (drums), Ron Haynes (trumpet), Cliff Kellam (bass) and the full-throated vocals, with feeling, style and, yes, swing delivered by Fabrique.  When Ella teases early on with “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” and doesn’t do it (“haven’t I done that enough”), I didn’t mind – as with most signature songs I found myself wondering why that was the tune synonymous with her name.  For me, the show-stopper was “The Man That I Love,” but then I'm a jazz ballad aficionado.  And don’t worry: Fabrique as Ella on stage does the great lady's most famous song with all the exuberance you’d expect.

And about that band: not only did they provide great support, turning the Mainstage into a hot jazz club, but they also interacted very effectively with Ella’s story, as for instance, Harper playing Ella’s first manager and band leader, Chick Webb, or Kellam as Ella’s supportive husband, or Haynes’ Satchmo imitation for a sparkling Ella / Armstrong duet in the second half.

“It don’t mean a thing if ain’t got that swing” Ella sings at the beginning of the show, and, musically, this show means all it needs to.  If the drama didn’t always swing it, it at least let us in on the trials faced by even a consummate professional like Ella, for whom hitting the right musical note was never an issue, but the right note as a public personality might be a bit more hit or miss.

Ella the Musical; book by Jeffrey Hatcher; conceived by Rob Ruggiero and Dyke Garrison; directed by Rob Ruggiero; music direction by George Caldwell; music supervision and arrangements by Danny Holgate

Long Wharf Theatre, Sept. 22-Oct. 17

for my review of Crumbs, the current Yale Cabaret show, go to: http://www.newhavenadvocate.com/culture-vulture/crumbs-and-clues