Review: CHRISTMAS WITH THE CRAWFORDS Puts The 'Fun' Back In Dysfunctional at Desert Theatreworks

And you think your family get-togethers are awkward!

By: Nov. 28, 2023
Review: CHRISTMAS WITH THE CRAWFORDS Puts The 'Fun' Back In Dysfunctional at Desert Theatreworks

With Thanksgiving firmly in the rearview mirror, we find ourselves in another mad Christmas rush.  The folks at Desert Theatreworks have wrapped up their holiday gift for Palm Springs audiences with a huge sequined red bow in the form of “Christmas with the Crawfords” at the Margaritaville Resort. 

For the uninitiated, “Christmas with the Crawfords” is a campy musical mash-up revolving around Hollywood icon Joan Crawford (Kam Sisco), far past her prime and looking to jump start her stagnating career by granting a radio interview to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Shel Safir), taking place in Ms. Crawford's Brentwood home on Christmas Eve, featuring her and her two oldest children, Christina (Paul Crane) and Christopher (who is a hand puppet in this rendition, also voiced by Mr. Crane).  Based in concept on the real-life Christmas Eve radio interview Ms. Crawford granted in the 1949 from her California home, this highly fictionalized version turns the intensity up to eleven and sets all the tents ablaze.  "Mommie Dearest," as she militantly insists her children call her, is not up for “World's Best Mother”, and the thinnest of veneers this version of Joan tries to paint for the “millions listening at home” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Her nemesis and oft comedic foil, the much-maligned daughter Christina, cannot help but goad her mother and air the festering family laundry. To add to the insanity, neighbor Gary Cooper is hosting a Christmas bash next door, and an array of female Hollywood stars, played by Doug Arbulu, Anthony Nannini, Ian Ferris and Larry Martin, drop in “accidentally” while looking for the party. Being who they are, they insist on performing when they realize they've walked in on Hedda Hopper's live broadcast.

Review: CHRISTMAS WITH THE CRAWFORDS Puts The 'Fun' Back In Dysfunctional at Desert Theatreworks
NO WIRE HANGERS!

Conceived by Richard Winchester and Written by Mark Sargent, the musical features many well-known yule-tide classics with some very dark turns and double entendre that elicit naughty giggles from even the stingiest Scrooge.  This drag-alicious parody features some fine performances, all while wearing spike heels.  Cam Sisco originated the role of Joan for local audiences when the now shuttered Desert Rose Playhouse (Palm Springs’ first LGBTQ+ theatre) staged it back in 2018.  With its first staging with DTW, this Ms. Crawford misses none of her wallpaper shredding intensity, with a desperate malevolence that is matched, oddly enough, by her peer’s eye-rolling indifference.  Paul Crane’s embodiment of Christina, who serves both as her mother’s antithesis and saving grace, was comical and tragic.  While the comedy was wide, as written, the moments where Christina transited from the sarcastic wit in the room to the fearful victim of her mother’s well-known abuses were well categorized in Mr. Crane’s portrayal. The use of the puppet for little brother Christopher (while a bit of a throwaway as a character) did allow for a different way at looking at the boy: as someone who was merely a prop, to be pawned off when of no further use or whenever he was inconvenient.  The dummy got tossed around a lot!

The ensemble performers all got their shining moments as A-listers of Hollywood’s Golden Age.  Doug Arbulu’s Carmen Miranda was hilarious.  The fruit topped Brazilian bombshell is easy to get wrong, but Mr. Arbulu chose to keep the accent clean and the portrayal here fun and accessible.  Anthony Nannini’s Judy Garland was a show-stopper.  His physical portrayal was undeniable and scintillating.  From his mouth machinations as Judy sings to the ever so slightly tipsy stagger in those stilettos, this Ms. Garland was on par with any of the best impersonators out there. A newcomer from the Hi-Desert to DTW, Ian Ferris’ embodiment of Mae West and Ethel Merman were also stand-out performances.  Performed with restraint but with a devilish twinkle, Mr. Ferris struck the right tone in Mae West’s hyper-sexualized persona versus Ethel Merman’s brash yet personable manner.  Shel Safir’s Hedda Hopper was a grand lady.  Professional, polished and a sufferer of no fools, this Hedda kept things hopping!  Larry Martin played the gamut of several characters, from a darkling Baby Jane to a more mercurial Maxine Andrews but his Gloria Swanson deserves some accolades.  Aloof, measured and a bit out of time, there is a reason that she was the inspiration behind a later incarnation, Norma Desmond of “Sunset Boulevard” infamy.  Mr. Martin’s interpretation of Ms. Swanson was rather ghost-like, lingering in the scene but not always of the same world.  While this is not a singer’s musical, per se, Mr. Nannini and Mr. Ferris kept the group musical numbers on track.  The show’s translation of The Andrews Sisters was a fun side trek, but I would have appreciated a bit more of the Andrews’ signature harmonics. Kudos to all of the cast on the lightning-fast changes of costume, wig and makeup. Bravo!

Directed by DTW’s Artistic Director Lance Phillips, this production definitely is an antidote to the sappily sentimental Christmas schmutz that tends to fill the theatres and line the airwaves every December.  Biting, sarcastic and drippingly dysfunctional, the show is a fun-house mirror depiction of a happy family Christmas scene, as viewed by John Waters.  The simple yet functionally apropos set design by DTW CEO Ron Phillips and technical wizardry of Adriana Reyes kept the universe of the play actionable and accessible.  The costuming felt a bit uneven, particularly in early scenes when the use of dressing gowns and lingerie were a bit too short for the taller men in the cast, revealing a bit more…..of the presents under the tree….than I am sure was intended.  The wigs and makeup by James Rodriguez were suitably camp and of time period and character.  With a limited stage space available, Anthony Nannini made the most of it in his choreography.

If you are looking for an unusual holiday-tinged treat and you like your humor a bit on the dark side, “Christmas with the Crawfords” might be right up your alley.  This is not for the kiddies, but you can get your seats at online at https://www.dtworks.org/individual-show-tickets or by calling the box office at 760-980-1455. Performances are held on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 PM (except for Saturday December 23 and Sunday December 24 which will be dark) and Sundays at 2 PM through December 30. There will be one Wednesday, December 27 at 7:30PM. Tickets are $49.95 for all performances.




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