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FAMILY | Arts Zone

Wild Holiday Puppet Show Puts the 'Extra' in Extravaganza

November 30, 2000|LYNNE HEFFLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An elementary school production of "The Nutcracker" . . . with penguins . . . penguin Irish step dancers. A rotund lounge singer with lavender tux, purple sequined lapels and a satin hanky. A 9-foot-tall Santa. A frog who thinks he created the world. A levitating diaper-clad baby guru.

All of these weird wackies appear in the "Tom McCleister Christmastime Theatrical Extravaganza Yule 2K" at the Odyssey Theatre.

Performed by McCleister and his Me & My Shadows Puppet Troupe--E.E. Bell, Jo Chim, David Hart, Kimberly Huie, Melanie Jernigan, Carolyn Palmer and Steven M. Porter--this offbeat Christmas show is an uneven but entertaining mix of exuberance, Las Vegas schmaltz, visual hilarity, holiday sentiment and wildly off-the-wall puppetry. Part variety show and part story theater, it takes place in an old-time radio-show setting.

Ventriloquist McCleister, who voices most of the puppets, some live, some prerecorded, doesn't play himself. On stage, he's an overgrown, freckle-faced kid named Andy McCandy, who's accompanied by his curly headed wooden pal Mr. Laffey. After the pair's bantering parody of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," Andy starts the show by turning on a big wooden radio. The radio lid opens, and a ghostlike puppet announcer pops up, along with McCleister's alter-ego: another ghostlike gray puppet, made up of an eerie McCleister caricature mask and a long, flat cloth body.

Other puppets come directly out of the radio too, including a band-leader's gloved hands and baton, and Age-Old Stan, the show's gentle singing narrator, who's seen first as just a mask and then as a 3-foot-tall puppet.

The show's two main stories--a second-grade class of rubber puppet children putting on "The Nutcracker" and a Christmas Eve search for a missing doll with one of Santa's elves--are interspersed with musical numbers and shtick.

The versatile company members don't just manipulate the puppets. They are a singing, acting ensemble who often become puppets themselves. As Miss Gibson's second-graders, they play rubbery child puppets, walking and dancing about on their knees, wearing rubber wigs and neck-to-knee rag-doll-style child puppet bodies. As penguins, they waddle on penguin feet with flat penguin bodies held in front of them.

Vegas crooner Frank Lee Scarlett, who emotes all over the place while singing about "The Little Boy That Santa Forgot," is a life-size rod and hand puppet, as is the Sorce, an evil magician in the Nutcracker story. Bill, the egotistical Frog, and naughty Christmas doll Della Belle are stringed marionettes. Miss Gibson, the stern teacher, Nod Zim the Elf and bizarre Baby Genius are soft-body hand puppets. Poles are used for the towering Santa puppet, and Santa's little elves are a comical sight gag--they're worn on the actors' knees.

McCleister needs to tighten up dead-time pauses between scene transitions; otherwise, this decidedly original show is a wacky holiday treat.

* "Tom McCleister Christmastime Theatrical Extravaganza Yule 2K," Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, Saturdays, 1 and 4 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Dec. 17. $10-$12. (310) 477-2055. Running time: 90 minutes.

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