Out Front Theatre Company, Atlanta’s only LGBTQIA+ professional company, is producing the musical “Christmas with the Crawfords,” created by Richard Winchester, written by Mark Sargent, and directed by Jennifer Alice Acker. Most of the songs are familiar Christmas standards; the show runs through Dec. 21.
The songs may be familiar, but if you’re expecting typical holiday ambience, better look elsewhere.
You’ve probably seen or know about the 1981 docudrama “Mommie Dearest,” based on Christina Crawford’s (adopted daughter of Joan) book of her life with a Hollywood legend. Christina had a younger brother named Christopher, also adopted, and both children lived in near terror of their highly neurotic, egomaniacal mother, who often planned events of their lives to use as press releases.
One such event was the 1945 Christmas Eve live radio interview with Hedda Hopper (Jaymyria Etienne) at Joan’s Brentwood mansion in Los Angeles. This is the occasion of “Christmas with the Crawfords.” A problem for Joan is that Cary Grant is evidently giving a party next door, to which she is cordially not invited. So virtually every star in Hollywood stops by Joan’s house that evening—on their way to Cary Grant’s party—and many of them share a song.
To say that the movie (and particularly Faye Dunaway’s performance as Joan) is over the top is putting it mildly. What could have been a highly emotional film with tinges of horror became an instant camp classic. I remember Atlanta audiences gaily trekking to the now defunct (and lamented) Garden Hills Cinema with mops, buckets, and brushes. You may recall that Joan had a touch of lunacy about cleanliness: “I’m not mad at you; I’m mad at the dirt!”
At any rate, the comic possibilities of the piece have not gone unnoticed by Out Front’s company; and for the audience it’s a fairly constant laugh-riot. From the moment Joan Crawford (a very intense Emily Nedvidek) makes her entrance in a glamorous gown with that forbidding black haystack of hair, she rules the roost. All vestiges of sanity are officially shot, so the thing to do is to is to loosen up and marvel at a party where every star you can name (of the period) sings, dances, or both—just for you.
I want to give credit to music director Nick Silvestri, who does double duty by playing Liberace. Eric Griffis’ costumes and Brian Jordan’s wigs are shows by themselves. Choreography is by Jacob Lavoie.
True to the theatre’s mission, the cast is totally gender fluid; so anybody may play anybody. How’s this for a lineup of LGBTQIA+ icons: Judy Garland (Annamaria Dvorak), Ethel Merman (Lynn Grace), Hedda Hopper (Ms. Etienne), Gloria Swanson and Shirley Temple (Blake Fountain), Hattie McDaniel (Trevor Perry), and Carmen Miranda (Rosa Campos). The Andrews Sisters: (Dvorak, Perry, and Campos). Let’s not forget Michael Vine as Tina Crawford; and Abby Holland as Christopher.
Now we know that only the real Judy Garland sounds like Judy Garland (witness the current movie “Judy,” which I loved). But the performers here do a fine, fun job of suggesting the icons they are portraying. I was a bit puzzled by what seemed a lack of microphones; but it didn’t have any real deleterious effect. Sound has always been a bit of a problem with this large stage space, even before Out Front took over. But not to worry; you’ll hear fine; you’ll also laugh.
I like director Acker’s advice in the program: “Just take your steak rare and leave the wire hangers at the door, and everything will be fine.” She’s alluding to the movie, and she’s right.
For tickets and information, visit outfronttheatre.com.