Randy Harrison

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

November 27-December 23, 2018

Nowhere Man

Randy Harrison as Andy Warhol, and the cast of Pop! Pop!, the new musical now playing in its world premiere at the Yale Rep, could have been a camp classic: staging a song-and-dance extravaganza on the shooting of famed pop artist, provocateur, and blasé icon Andy Warhol at the hands of a disaffected feminist revolutionary, Valerie Solanis, in 1968.  The silver Factory, Warhol’s headquarters at 231 East 47th street in NY, was famed for its stable of hangers-on, including “poor little rich girl” Edie Sedgwick, pre-op transexual Candy Darling, and other would-be geniuses.  From this remove, it would be possible to play these characters for laughs, as a collective disgorging of whatever is stored in the closet marked “NYC Underground c. 1967.”  Along the way, we might be amused (or not) by the fact that one of these “superstars” had the wherewithal to shoot and critically wound The Master.

But Maggie-Kate Coleman, author of the book and lyrics of Pop!, her collaborator, Anna K. Jacobs, composer, and director Mark Brokow are after something else: the play, staged as a kind of dream inquisition into the shooting, occuring in Andy’s mind moments afterwards, eventually becomes an inquisition on Andy himself, as both the shaman and charlatan who created the forces of resentment that would lead to the attempted murder.  Not so much: who shot Andy Warhol, and why?, but rather: who wouldn’t shoot Andy Warhol, and why not?

The humor of the piece is wry and ironic in its treatment of Warhol, a coolness that the artist himself might well have appreciated.  Randy Harrison is dead-on in his Andy-mimicry, recreating the artist as a likeable apotheosis of a dilettante, always ready to give an empty paper bag to anyone who really needs it.  And by giving voice to Andy’s underlings -- most notably in the powerful, engaging, crowd-pleasing performance of Leslie Kritzer as Valerie -- the songs, such as “Up Your Ass” and “Money” and “Big Gun,” chip away at or send up any sympathy we might have for Andy, converting these characters from the ciphers of grime-glam they were in real life, given status by their roles at the Factory and in Andy’s homemade arthouse B movies, into articulate spokespersons for the needs of the uncelebrated, the passed-over, the assistants and groupies, the would-bes of all stripes, and finally, of women as the formerly disenfranchised but now up-and-coming demographic for all things cultural.

Thus, we get the replacement of the Oedipal struggle with artistic "fathers," that the Abstract Expressionists understood, with the anti-partriarchal struggle of the likes of Valerie, whose S.C.U.M. manifesto (Society for Cutting Up Men) envisions a world rid of men in which women will finally achieve their greatness.  But as Andy sings at one point “I’m not your father,” and casting him in the role of the evil daddy, or even the fetish-loving gay daddy-substitute, sends out ripples of satire.

The play is entertainingly artful in its mocking of all sides: treating the Ab-Exs Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Robert Motherwell as macho cowboys, much as Warhol and his crowd perceived them, but at the same time mocking Andy as the working-class mama’s boy from Pittsburgh who recreated himself as the holy avatar of making art the mirror in which consumerism can read its own features, fascinated and narcissistic (and Warhol would not see those as negative characteristics), but who, it seems, never really gave of himself.  That he attracted a crew of narcissists is another point the play sends up, by never letting us forget that the great talents supposedly possessed by the likes of Viva, Edie, Candy, and Valerie were largely wishful thinking.

It’s also the case that Warhol himself was fallible to just such wishful thinking.  He really wanted his movies to be appreciated by Hollywood, to earn him status and a real budget, so that he could really make stars of his “superstars.”  But it never happened, and the disappointment, as an aspect of Warhol’s own story -- as, eventually, the hanger-on of all hanger-ons, even to his own magazine and art production, and in his flattered attendance on the beautiful people -- is missing here.  Perhaps the play could use a poignant aria by Andy on the pressures of being famous, to offset the sentiments of “15 Minutes” in which the company seems to accept as a mantra Warhol’s observation that “in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.”  He didn’t say it as a promise, but rather as a prediction -- that the search for fame would become the driving feature of life.

The musical, which began life last summer in the Yale Institute for Music Theatre, is still finding its feet.  It’s a lot of fun and could become a hit in New York.  If it gets the Broadway treatment it could use some real dance routines to flesh out the Factory -- the cast of seven are all quite good as singers, but display rhythmic movement more than actual dance numbers.  The stage and cast are small, but if both expand, more could be done with some of the songs as production numbers.

Special mention should be made of Brian Charles Rooney as Candy, who sings at times like a woman, at times like a man, and at times like a man singing like a woman, depending on what is required; as our Mistress of Ceremonies, Candy’s role is pivotal and, it seems to me, could benefit from more play as a glamour queen -- the bridge between Judy Garland and David Bowie, as it were, a new Sally Bowles for a different time.

For me, the weak links are the guys -- Ondine (Doug Kreeger) and Gerard (Danny Binstock), two Factory workers who are given roles as stoned sleuths -- whose songs never quite come alive.  Unlike the girls, each of whom gets a song outlining her particular status.  But even there, Edie’s songs were largely lacking in the bite and wit given to Valerie and Viva (Emily Swallow); Edie (Cristen Paige), in the Factory mythology, was more than simply a victim of wealth or a would-be starlet looking to be cast in a major role -- her own life -- by Andy.  For a time she was a sort of androgynous double for Warhol in those early days when her name opened more doors than his did.

One has the sense that the musical could expand too in its cameo roles -- where’s Billy Name?  Why not a bit for Lou Reed (“I have some resentments that can never be unmade”) as potential assassin?  More, more, more.  As Andy himself said, “always leave them wanting less.”

POP! Book and lyrics by MAGGIE-KATE COLEMAN Music by ANNA K. JACOBS Directed by MARK BROKAW November 27-December 19, 2009 Yale Repertory Theatre