BWW Review: The Rip Nelson Holiday Spectacular
'Tis the season for a Hell in a Handbag holiday show and this year David Cerda serves up a nostalgic, heart-warming and yet still slightly acerbic love letter to all those celebrity-filled holiday variety shows of yesteryear with THE RIP NELSON HOLIDAY SPECTACULAR.
Ed Jones stars as Rip Nelson, a washed-up, closeted, has-been in the vein of Rip Taylor, Charles Nelson Reilly and Paul Lynde. It's a star vehicle for one of HIAH's consistently funny actors and rightfully so. It is hard to imagine anyone else in the company able to pull off the necessary scene-chewing required of the variety show aspects along with the heart and pathos of the behind-the-scenes antics.
At the start of the show, Nelson is fresh out of his umpteenth stint in rehab ("Betty Ford's eyes turn to dollar signs when she sees me," he confides in his faithful hair and make-up stylist Gladys played by a warm and gregarious Lori Lee). He gets an early morning call that just might jump start his fledging career: Paul Lynde has died and producers need him to immediately step in that day and shoot a holiday special that Lynde was supposed to tape. In keeping with the homage to holiday variety shows, Rip is joined by a cavalcade of "stars" including Patti LaBelle (RoBert Williams), Liza Minnelli (Alexa Castelvecchi), magician Doug Henning (a dead ringer performance by David Lipschutz), Bruce Jenner (Chazie Bly), rival girl groups The Lennon Sisters (AJ Wright, Anna Seiburt and Kristopher Bottrall) and the King Cousins (Terry McCarthy, Grant Drager and Adrian Hadlock) and, finally, Rip's ex-lover Dom DeLuise who dumped Rip years ago to marry a woman and father children (a spot on impression by Tommy Bullington).
Rip literally wrestles with the bottle as the taping falls apart around him. Liza is also recently out of rehab and is tearing up both set and dressing rooms looking for cocaine. Henning might actually be practicing witchcraft and cursing various guest stars.
Cerda again serves up some tasty parodies of holiday favorites with a dark twist on "Frosty the Snowman" being my favorite. "Santa vs. Jesus" is also a clever re-imagining of the "Snow Miser/Heat Miser" tune from "The Year Without a Santa Clause."
The show also has heart. Castelvecchi delivers a touching and emotional rendition of the Judy Garland standard "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Jones' performance of "Memory" (in full cat costume opposite Williams' LaBelle) elicits initial groans and laughs from the audience, but it ends up being a master class in camp theater as Jones gets into the meat of what the song is about: a lonely, faded star clinging to what was, barely surviving what is and completely oblivious to what could be.
The book could use some trimming. A bit in a children's orphanage in which children are corrupted by The Devil (played by Kermit the Frog) is a bit too dark and goes on far too long. I didn't quite understand why The Devil would have it out for both Jesus and Santa. It seems to me that he would be fine with Santa stealing attention away from Jesus. Cerda also misses an easy target: the box office turkey "Annie" came out the same year in which the variety show is set.
These are minor quibbles, though. Jones is one of the most underappreciated comedic actors working in the city. He again finds humanity among the humor and elevates the evening above the vaudeville shtick.
THE RIP NELSON HOLIDAY SPECTACULAR runs through Dec. 30 at Mary's Attic, 5400 N. Clark. Tickets, $28-$42.Call 800.838.3006 or www.handbagproductions.org