“Judy’s Scary Little Christmas” at Arts West

OzFqywY9Xr96ep2CMzCqt9xRH7ZAFFEdeRPq4e7HqD2QGA2g9ztcWNasfG8LF1t6qIf a campy Christmas is what you’re in the mood for, you’ll find it at Arts West where Judy Garland is having a party. She’s planned a TV special à la the 1950s, and a number of her famous friends are stopping by. For Judy, its success is very important to her career.

What a guest list she has. First to drop in is Bing Crosby swinging a golf club. Then comes Liberace in a costume more flamboyant than you can even imagine. Ethel Merman is a presence with a voice that vibrates the scenery. Nixon comes next and isn’t too pleased when Lillian Hellman arrives. You can imagine why.

Meanwhile a charming ensemble of three young men in Christmas sweaters dance about the stage paying homage to Judy and performing little chores. Still to arrive is that dearest of mommy’s Joan Crawford.

The stage, made to look like a TV set, is filled with Christmas baubles and comfortable furniture carefully arranged. High above where the TV audience couldn’t have seen it, is the “applause” sign adding verisimilitude, but it’s clearly not necessary for the theatre audience. There’s plenty to generate applause in this play without a sign.

It’s funny. The music is great. The impersonations work well. Lisa Mandelkorn as Judy brings enormous talent and a great voice to the role. Another standout is Kate Jaeger, whose Ethel Merman won’t easily be forgotten. David Caldwell captures every fey gesture of Liberace, and Ryan McCabe as Joan Crawford gives cross-dressing a good name.

Most of that is in the first act. The second act seems poorly connected to Act I despite its good music, still funny lines, and impersonations. The story loses ground and takes a turn that is puzzling and macabre. Despite that, this production still offers a good theatrical experience.

Credit for the music and lyrics go to Joe Patrick Ward and for the book to David Church and Jim Webber. Troy Wageman directed and created the snappy choreography for this production. Christopher Distefano is in charge of music. His masterful piano playing is another one of the highlights of the show.

Through December 28 at Arts West Theatre 4711 California Ave., SW, Seattle, (206 938-0339 or www.artswest.org).

“Christmastown: A Holiday Noir” presented by Seattle Public Theater

When a buxom broad in black walks into Nick Holiday’s seedy detective office with an incriminating picture of Santa, well you know this isn’t your usual Christmas theatrical. But oh what fun it is!Nick

Think of the ’40s detective genre but brighten it up with some talk of mistletoe, Christmas trees and the appearance of an extremely tall Mrs. Claus, as well as a Tiny Tim who towers over the rest of the cast. Add a heap of one-liners and character names taken directly from traditional Christmas favorites—carols, popular songs, movies, and, of course, from “Twas the Night Before Christmas”—ones that Playwright Wayne Rawley has managed to slip in so seamlessly that each comes as a delightful surprise and provides the satisfaction of knowing “you got it.” Altogether it’s a Christmas treat unlike any other.

In some productions, the script is the outstanding element. In others, the acting is what really shines. And in some, the success is mainly attributable to the direction. Here it’s Director Kelly Kitchens who deserves the strongest kudos. She mines the script for every visual and verbal gag it can provide, hones the physical humor to a sharp edge, and moves this frothy delight along at a jolly, holly pace.

John Ulman as Nick Holiday gives us a little Humphrey Bogart mixed with a bit of Jimmy Stewart and Guy Noir. Amber Wolfe, the broad in black, and in various female roles can be both deliciously naughty and nice. Rhonda J. Soikowski and Brandon Felker show fine versatility as they play the ten other roles, swiftly moving from character to character.

Playwright Rawley must have spent inordinate hours selecting the quotes and character names that appear here, and they work so well that it doesn’t matter that the story is a little rough. This is the year for new and unexpected Christmas plays in Seattle, and this one is worth a visit.

Through Dec. 24 in repertory with “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” at The Bathhouse Theater, 7312 W. Greenlake Dr., N., Seattle, (206 524-1300 or www.seattlepublictheater.org)

“The Great Society” at Seattle Repertory Theatre

Stunning! Heartbreaking! Infuriating! Incredibly good theatre! We have here part two of Robert Schenkaan’s brilliant analysis of the last years of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s triumphant yet tragic political career. I defy you to be unmoved.

These were the years of Johnson’s Great Society, years when he forced through Congress legislation designed to eliminate poverty and racial injustice. Bills to improve education, health care, and transportation were enacted. LBJ was a hero and a visionary with political balls of steel. But unfortunately Vietnam was exploding, and with it Johnson’s popularity. Jack Willis as LBJ captures the essence of the man, his down-home humor, his will of iron, his shrewd understanding of politics, and his lamentable fall from grace.

This play, gloriously staged by director Bill Rauch, is a better course in political science than any textbook I’ve ever read. If you want to know exactly what it takes to get a bill passed in Congress, here you’ll see how it’s done. There are the bribes, the threats, the power plays, the manipulations, the strange bedfellows and the genius to get it accomplished.

Johnson’s battles were not only with a recalcitrant Congress and his political enemies. The play sensitively portrays his fraught encounters with civil rights leaders, especially Martin Luther King. He could never move swiftly or powerfully enough for King. Meanwhile King faced his own political problems. The black power contingent viewed non-violence as an unacceptably feeble response to the unlawful and deadly behavior of police in both the south and the north. You’ll cringe at the portrayal of those encounters, just as you’ll recoil from the portrayal of the debacle in Vietnam.

Powerful audio-visual effects bring back the agonies of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War at home and on the front. Large-scale images flash behind the actors as the theatre reverberates with their sounds.

The acting is, for the most part, stunning. Jack Willis provides an awe-inspiring, larger than life performance as Johnson. Most of the other actors play a number of characters and manage to give each one of them the personality that history tells us was theirs. One good example of this is Jonathan Haugen whose George Wallace is the quintessential bigot just as his Richard Nixon exudes smarminess.

If you can get tickets, take your teenagers with you to this. It’s a lesson in American history and an example of magnificent theatre you and they won’t soon forget.

Through Jan. 4 playing in repertory with “All the Way”, Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle, (206 443-2222 or www.seattlerep.org).

“Pride and Prejudice” Jane Austin’s Favorite Characters Brought Back to Life at Book-It

Richard Nguyen Sloniker and Jen Taylor Photo by Chris Bennion

Richard Nguyen Sloniker and Jen Taylor
Photo by Chris Bennion

In this, Book-It’s 25th Anniversary season, it brings back those charming Bennet sisters, their harried mother, and all the men who complicate their lives. “Pride and Prejudice” was previously seen on this stage in 2000 and 2004, and, as it has in the past, it will absolutely delight the many fans of Jane Austen. Others will enjoy it too, but perhaps find it a bit slow going initially.

This is about the early 19th C drawing room crowd in the English countryside when the pace of life was slower. This production certainly captures that slower pace. We meet the characters as they perform their stately dances, lots and lots of stately dances. The form of those dances was carefully prescribed but much flirting and sniping could be fit in around the edges. Because a woman was considered a failure if she didn’t marry, these dances were enormously important. It was at such social gatherings that romantic attachments could be made or rejected, and we find both here.

Greg Carter’s set, simple but so appropriate, consists of writing—writing on the walls, writing on the floor, text wherever you look. Little else is needed but a chair or two when the scene demands. Such a setting puts a lot of pressure on actors to make the characters and story magically come alive. They succeed admirably.

It’s a stellar cast, but of course, there are a few standouts. Richard Nguyen Sloniker is the dashing Mr. Darcy whom few women could resist. Jen Taylor as the strong-minded Elizabeth isn’t one to be easily subdued. She has her pride, and, like all of that time period, her prejudices too. But the same could be said of the prideful and prejudiced Darcy. The interplay between the two is delectable!

Meanwhile Elizabeth’s sisters complicate the family life. Rachel Brow is properly rambunctious as Lydia, the youngest and troublesome sister. Rebecca Olson is properly decorous as Jane, the oldest and, perhaps, most responsible sister.

Austen so well captures the morals and manners of her time, and this adaptation by Marcus Goodwin who also directed it, is a holiday sweetmeat for Book-It fans.

Through Dec. 28 at Center Theatre at the Armory in Seattle Center, (206 216-0833 or boxoffice@book-it.org

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“Appalachian Christmas Homecoming” at Taproot Theatre

The Christmas season is a time for nostalgia—not just for savoring the memories of one’s own youth, but for remembering bygone days before the computer ruled our lives, when, we like to believe, life was sweeter and families didn’t need 60-inch TVs to find their holiday fun. “Appalachian Christmas Homecoming,” directed by Scott Nolte, takes us back.

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Melissa Maricich, Simon Pringle, Theresa Holmes, Mark Tyler Miller and Edd Key in Appalachian Christmas Homecoming. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

Grandpa (Edd Key) and Grandma (Theresa Holmes) have rented the dilapidated Grange Hall in their Appalachian hollow. They and their teen-aged daughter (Melissa Maricich) lay out the covered dishes along with their acoustic guitars, banjoes, mandolins, other stringed instruments, and even a set of spoons and then settle down for an old-fashioned hoedown. This is all seen through the eyes of their grandson (Simon Pringle) as he remembers what was and what he’s been told about those good old days.

He remembers the stories about Grandpa’s disapproval of Michael (Mark Tyler Miller) the man who would become his father. How Grandpa didn’t want Michael there on one of those pre-Christmas nights. But most of all he remembers the music, and that’s what this production is all about—the music.

It’s especially satisfying to hear the selection of regional Christmas music that the cast mixes with the carols we know so well. Skillful playing, spirited dancing, and heartwarming singing make this a musical treat.

Theresa Holmes in a dress Ma Joad might have worn exudes common good sense and purposefulness. She knows how to keep her judgmental husband in line. Edd Key as that husband is not only a masterful musician but also a fine actor. Watch him hitch up his pants in grumpy disapproval of that handsome young fella’ who’s sweet on his daughter. Watch his mouth betray his irritation, no words needed. The entire cast is good.

The only weakness here is the beginning of the play itself. It took me some time to realize that this was all a flashback and not the return of the Prodigal Son. But now I’ve told you that, so you shouldn’t have any problem at all.

Through Dec. 27, at Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., Seattle, (206 781-9707 or www.taproottheatre.org/buy-tickets/).