Holiday Roundup of Musical Shows
How would you like your Christmas entertainment this year-classy? Campy? Jewish? In New York City's theatrically and ethnically diverse environment, there's something for almost every taste on the list, from naughty to nice.
Take A Very Bette Christmas, promoted with the tagline "Fasten your seatbelts...It's going to be a bumpy Christmas!" This new cabaret show, directed by Mark S. Graham, was written by Elizabeth Fuller, who had a real-life Man Who Came to Dinner experience with the real live Bette Davis in 1985 (because of an NYC hotel strike)-an encounter she dramatized in the 1990s off-Broadway play Me & Jezebel. Still inspired by her onetime houseguest, Fuller wrote this new, purely fictional piece imagining a Bette Davis TV special circa 1962. And it gives Tommy Femia, best known as a Judy Garland impersonator, a chance to do up the eyes, light up the cigarettes and transform into yet another grande dame of old Hollywood.
As if Bette wasn't the antithesis of Christmas spirit in her natural state, she's forced to welcome Joan Crawford as a guest star on her special, since it's sponsored by Pepsi (which Crawford headed after her fifth husband, the company chairman, died) and work for a director who's not William Wyler but a Southern-accented tyro named Skippy. Bette enacts her own version of A Christmas Carol, with three ghosts preying on Joan Crawford, taking her to her alleged casting-couch rise to the top in the past, her daughter Christina's best-selling revenge of the future, etc. Brenda Lee, Bing Crosby and Liberace also drop in, each to perform the Christmas entertainment for which they're famous: "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" for Lee, "White Christmas" for Crosby and...the Nativity scene for Liberace. Davis sings too.
Not surprisingly, all this adds up to a barrage of sight gags, insider references (there's an audience quiz on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?) and inexorable Bette bitchiness. And not surprisingly, it's most amusing to fans of said elements-and, of course, fans of Femia. But credit must also be given to Daniel John Kelly, who plays Amisch, a Soviet-circus refugee hired as sidekick to Davis, and, as such, has to stand in for the stars during the final dress rehearsal. So he dons a fedora to be Bing, a wig with hair bow as child star Lee and endures assorted other indignities that one might expect when you're sidekick to Bette Davis. If you want holiday cheer skewered and smashed, with no sentimental reconciliation à la Scrooge, this is a show for you. Catch it at Don't Tell Mama through Jan. 8 (212-757-0788).
For a present-day diva as cantankerous as Davis, look no further than Jackie Hoffman, who followed scene-stealing turns in Broadway's Hairspray and the film Kissing Jessica Stein with a hit cabaret act, The Kvetching Continues, last year. She's back to kvetch some more, not just about the holidays but also about kids, her career, her mother and the bias in seasonal reveling. Her new show is called Jackie Hoffman: Chanukah at Joe's Pub, and amid-or despite?-all her sarcasm and blue humor it's actually a very informative yet entertaining primer on Jewish holidays.
As is common during the holiday season, Hoffman looks back on the year-the year 5766, that is; she's following the Jewish calendar. And since that year just began in October, her retrospective is limited. But it does include Sukkoth, the harvest festival during which Jews are supposed to construct and live in sparsely equipped huts-kind of a "Gilligan's Long Island," Hoffman explains. Reverting to the Gregorian calendar, Hoffman enumerates the many disasters of the past year: tsunami, hurricanes, Rosie O'Donnell playing Golde in Fiddler on the Roof. Her face suggests she may have pursued the role, though she's not shy about naming names regarding jobs she'd like to get. She does a perfect imitation of Gladys Kravitz in Bewitched to prove how ridiculous it was that she couldn't even get an audition for the part in the movie (and then sniggers that the Nicole Kidman film flopped).
Yet Hoffman's most barbed-and original-attacks are directed at children. Even among Hoffman's politically incorrect brethren and occasional sistren, who else derides the little buggers so much, especially at this tyke-oriented time of year? But Hoffman's unapologetic anti-kid quips are her bravest and often funniest material. Hey, she's proud to have something growing inside her: a uterine fibroid-evidence, she says, that her "reproductive organs are riddled with hatred."
Hoffman opens the show with a medley of "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" and Chanukah songs (in Hebrew), but most of her act is comedy. Even the other songs are essentially comic riffs. And while she's mocking all the holiday hullabaloo, she certainly dresses for the occasion-in a voluminous purple and turquoise strapless gown, with menorah necklace. The performance includes the inevitable Christmas Carol skit, this time with actor/humorist David Rakoff showing Hoffman a past, present and future where she always has the same gig, doing the same old shtick.
Even though she mines familiar topics for laughs and calls herself "the poor man's Bette Midler," Hoffman evades derivativeness with her audacity and combination of stand-up, singing, storytelling and raunch. (If talk of hand jobs and other crudely described sex acts offends you, consider yourself warned.) And she, along with director Michael Schiralli and accompanist Bobby Peaco, have indeed created a Chanukah celebration, not just a Jews-are-screwed-at-Christmastime rant. Hoffman is performing two shows nightly on Mondays, and single shows on assorted other evenings, through Jan. 4; see www.joespub.com.
While Jackie Hoffman is brashly reclaiming the holidays for non-Christians, it takes mellow, refined Michael Feinstein to point out that most classic Christmas songs were written by Jews. An exception being "Jingle Bells," with which he opens A Holiday Romance, the current show at the supper club bearing his name, Feinstein's at the Regency. To honor his ancestors, Feinstein sings a traditional Hebrew tune, "L'Dor V'Dor (Generation to Generation)," and to honor his holiday, he sings Tom Lehrer's comic "Hanukkah in Santa Monica." But there's some "Jingle Bell Rock" and "Here Comes Santa Claus" mixed in as well.
Feinstein also commemorates the year gone by, with musical tributes to some famous friends who passed away this year: Cole Porter's "Can Can" for Bobby Short and a "Christmas Auld Lang Syne"/"White Christmas" medley for Robert Tisch, chairman of Loews Hotels (which owns the Regency). And what Christmas show would be complete without something by Stephen Sondheim, who turned 75 this year? Of course, Feinstein acknowledges that Sondheim is hardly a songwriter you'd associate with the holidays, though he did cowrite one for Gypsy that was cut, "Three Wishes for Christmas" (sounds like it gave way to "Little Lamb"). Feinstein won't sing it, though, because Sondheim's Gypsy collaborator, Jule Styne, told him it stinks. He does "Being Alive" instead.
That and other selections from Feinstein's favorite source, the great American songbook, comprise the "romance" part of Holiday Romance. He pays special tribute to Harry Warren-who lacks the name recognition of Gershwin, Porter and Berlin even though he wrote twenty-one No. 1 hits, eleven Oscar-nominated tunes and about 800 other songs-with one of his typically soothing and softhearted renditions of "This Heart of Mine" and "The More I See You." (Feinstein released an album of Warren songs, Hopeless Romantics, in September.) For another standard, "It's Been a Long, Long Time," he brings his father, Ed, on stage to sing with him.
Feinstein does do some new things in the show. For the first time, he has backup singers, a trio of women (the Feintones?, he suggests) who add pizzazz to the numbers. He performs a song he just premiered at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, "My Gift of Thanks." And in a real change of pace, he rocks out with the Jerry Lee Lewis piano-pounder "Great Balls of Fire," even sitting on the keys at one point.
Feinstein can come off as overly languid in his televised and recorded performances, but in person he's animated, even cheeky at times and has a sweet rapport with the audience. So much holiday entertainment these days is gleefully grinchified-see the above two shows, for instance, or such other current productions as 'Tis the @#$%-ing Season and A Shitty Christmas Carol-that it's nice to just hear (and see) music performed in the true spirit of the season. And with Feinstein, you also get nostalgia, an intimate setting and first-rate musicianship, by Feinstein as well as the six guys accompanying him, who include Bucky Pizzarelli on guitar and John Oddo (who did all the arrangements) on piano. A night at Feinstein's is a splurge-$60 plus $40 food/drink minimum-but it's also festive, romantic and uniquely New York. Through Dec. 30, 212-339-4095 or www.feinsteinsattheregency.com.
The fun new off-Broadway concert A Broadway Diva Christmas also gives you your carols straight-up, no parodies. Well, almost no parodies. Forbidden Broadway alum Christine Pedi is on hand and back on duty, mimicking the costumes and choreography of Chicago in a number that ingeniously conflates "Roxie" and "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town," using Roxie's vamp and spoken words, only modified for Christmas (e.g., instead of fantasizing about the boys she's going to get, it's the toys). Later, Pedi sings each of the 12 days of Christmas as a different diva-Liza, Judy, Julie Andrews, Katharine Hepburn, Elaine Stritch, Maggie Smith, Rosie O'Donnell, you name it. Literally: Names of her impersonatees are selected from a bowl by audience members, so the lineup's different every performance. But more than just imitating the ladies, Pedi incorporates words and music they're associated with into their respective verses. It's a clever, hilarious arrangement (by Pedi and musical director Brian Nash) and a great gift for showbiz geeks.
While Pedi is generating most of the laughs, her co-headliners have their own niches in the show. Audience fave Kathy Brier (the second Tracy in Hairspray) expressively handles the contemporary carols, like "All I Want for Christmas Is You" and Joni Mitchell's "River." Marla Schaffel, star of the short-lived musical Jane Eyre, gets a mixed bag, from "I'll Be Home for Christmas" to Matt Stone and Trey Parker's (of South Park infamy) "Lonely Jew on Christmas." Hostess Ellen Greene performs ol' reliables "The Christmas Song," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and, in the original German, "Silent Night." There's a bizarrely despairing strain to Greene's delivery, which I found a bit disconcerting. With her babyish voice and ditzy-flirty onstage persona-still Audrey after all these years-"Santa Baby" seems a better fit, and Greene sings it while slinking around in a copper-colored sequined dress.
Another excellent match of outfit to song is the white goddess gown Maya Days wears for "O Holy Night." Days-who's had pop hits as well as roles in Aida and Rent-also sings "Do You Hear What I Hear?" Her heartfelt performances of these religious tunes unintentionally (I presume) resemble a Whitney Houston impersonation, since Houston has covered both songs and Days has a similar style. And by the finale, when Days is bobbing up and down and gesturing to the audience, she's out-Whitneying Whitney. She also does a dolorous rendition of Stevie Wonder's "Someday at Christmas" that, given recent events and the accompanying video of Days' toddler son (to whom she dedicates the song), is a more genuine recognition of wartime suffering than all the vapid shout-outs to the troops every singer feels obligated to make this time of year.
Three divas-to-be, called the Jingle Babes, also participate in the festivities. Kate Pazakis, Sally Schwab and N'Kenge sing "Silver Bells" and "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" and back the stars on some numbers. They all (except Greene) join in for the high-spirited finale combining both the Christmas and Three Dog Night songs titled "Joy to the World"-gotta love the George F. Handel/Hoyt Axton songwriter credit! It sends you out into the cold night thankful for the bounties of the season and of the theater. And isn't that just what Christmas is for? A Broadway Diva Christmas, which should become one of NYC's holiday traditions, runs through Dec. 31. It's directed by Michael Duling and produced by Duling and Tom D'Angora. Check out www.abroadwaydivachristmas.com for more info.
A Very Bette Christmas photo by Carol Rosegg; Jackie Hoffman photo by Kevin Yatarola.