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THEATER | THEATER REVIEWS

Comedy and musicals make a theater merry

Holiday productions keep the season light with an offbeat 'Mulholland,' a Judy Garland sing-alike and some sophisticated British humor.

November 29, 2002|F. Kathleen Foley | Special to The Times

Two wacky original musicals and a caustic British comedy swell the already bountiful offerings of holiday-themed shows this Christmas season.

If you're in the mood for the purely odd, try William Robens' "A Mulholland Christmas Carol" at Theatre of NOTE. An offbeat reworking of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," the musical recasts Ebenezer Scrooge as Los Angeles water czar William Mulholland (Greg Wall), a grasping, covetous old sinner who gloats over his hoard of water, not gold. The water puns get a bit belabored. However, toothy Teddy Roosevelt (David Conner) makes a bully appearance as the Ghost of Christmas Present, while affable Dean Lemont is an appealing young Scrooge -- uh, make that Mulholland.

Although Robens assures us in the program notes that his play is not meant to be historically accurate, too much time is spent expounding on the particulars of Los Angeles' transition from burg to metropolis. Fortunately, a lively, hummable score, written primarily by Robens, keeps the overlong first act flowing. Musical director Bill Newlin fronts the excellent live band, and director Kiff Scholl encourages his big, bombastic cast to be as broad as it can be -- which is very broad indeed.

Act One is only intermittently funny, but Act Two progresses from the laborious to the uproarious with the introduction of the Van Norman (i.e. Cratchit) family and a side-splitting, partly puppet Poquito Pablito (Terry Tocantins), the Tiny Tim of the piece. From that point on, the show takes off like a bottle rocket. The climax -- the 1928 collapse of the St. Francis Dam -- is a hilariously cheesy debacle of pocket-Bible proportions that segues, dramatic license permitting, into an up-tempo happy ending. Whatever possessed Robens and his confederates to come up with this goofy premise is anyone's guess. You have to wonder -- but you have to laugh.

If you're in the mood for a holiday bargain, you can get four shows for the price of one in "Judy's Scary Little Christmas" at the Victory Theatre. That's not always good. Joe Patrick Ward's witty score and a terrific cast are a frequently magical combination.

However, the scattershot book by James Webber and David Church wavers wildly in tone, ranging from side-splitting parody to contrived suspense story to bafflingly downbeat denouement.

The action is set on a CBS sound stage in 1959, where Judy Garland (the wonderful Connie Champagne) is taping her Christmas special. Recovering from a recent brush with death, Judy has a lot riding on this show, and she's hoping show-biz pals Bing Crosby (Sean Smith), Liberace (Don Lucas), Joan Crawford (Joanne O'Brien) and Ethel Merman (Lauri Johnson) will help her put things over. Unfortunately, "special guests" Richard M. Nixon (a wickedly funny Eric Anderson) and Lillian Hellman (Jan Sheldrick), bristling antagonists, threaten to derail Judy's comeback.

An eventual leap into the otherworldly is forced and shoddily set up. Also, Church and Webber too often bend their plot to accommodate a gag. A case in point is Hellman's unlikely appearance on Judy's show.

However, the subsequent duet between Nixon and Hellman -- a high point -- almost makes us forget the initial contrivance. Making the most of the material, the cast sparkles throughout. In fact, these performer/impersonators are so dead-on that you want to package them and present them to your friends.

If you like your comedy more sophisticated and thematically cohesive, "Season's Greetings," by prolific British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, will ring your Christmas chimes.

Sly, subtle and smartly executed, the production marks the Company Rep's last offering at the El Portal's Circle Theatre before the company's move to the nearby American Renegade Theatre.

The action takes place in the home of Neville Bunker (Daniel Sapecky) and his wife, Belinda (Heather Simmons), who are hosting a full house of relatives and friends over the holidays.

As realized by Ron Slanina, the warm, handsomely decked-out set is ideal for a cozy, old-fashioned Christmas. However, in typical Ayckbourn fashion, the characters soon prove so boozy, over-sexed and generally fractious that the holidays degenerate into a series of increasingly outlandish calamities.

Director Jules Aaron renders Ayckbourn's deliciously dour portrait with a fine hand. It's hard to single out anyone in this uniformly top-notch cast, but Simmons and Slanina strike sparks as would-be adulterers whose dalliance is spectacularly disrupted, while Stuart Thompson shines as a boorish old poop whose epic puppet shows are the bane of everyone's holiday.

*

Holiday shows

What: "A Mulholland Christmas Carol"

Where: Theatre of NOTE, 1517 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood

When: Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.

Ends: Dec. 21

Price: $15

Contact: (323) 856-8611

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

*

What: "Judy's Scary Little Christmas"

Where: Victory Theatre, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank

When: Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Starting Dec. 8, Sundays at 3 and 7 p.m.

Ends: Dec. 22

Price: $28

Contact: (818) 841-5422

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

*

What: "Season's Greetings"

Where: El Portal, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood

When: Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.

Ends: Dec. 22

Price: $20 to $25

Contact: (818) 506-7550

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

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