Thursday, December 8, 2005 Edition
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Center Stage: 'Judy's Scary Little Christmas'

By Erin Randolph erin@dmcityview.com

StageWest's production of "Judy's Scary Little Christmas" is a bit like the holiday music that penetrates the airwaves this time of year. At times it's really cheesy, at times it's really festive, at times it's really heartfelt and at times it's downright depressing. However, the journey through this hilariously strange musical concoction is quite entertaining thanks to some great acting performances and well-timed jokes.

This soon-to-be perennial Christmas favorite will be staged at the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines' Stoner Studio Theater through Sunday. "Judy's Scary Little Christmas" transforms this versatile theater space into a television studio in 1959, where Judy Garland (Preshia Paulding) is planning to tape a comeback special of sorts. The real-life audience becomes the audience for this live show - with "on air" and "applause" boxes provided as cues for the event - so it sees what's going on when the cameras are rolling, and when they're not.

Over the course of the television program, there's plenty of singing, plenty of special guests, plenty of alcohol consumed and plenty of characters who're seeking some sort of redemption for past ills. Liberace (Wally Glover) shows up all iced out and bedazzled, making everyone uncomfortable with his blatantly homosexual comments. Ethel Merman (Barb Wagner) shows up wearing some sort of Hawaiian muumuu and attempts to steal the spotlight to promote a Hawaiian album she never actually made. Irish crooner Bing Crosby (Joe Parrish) shows up looking ready for a game of golf, but proceeds to drink about an entire bottle of alcohol, instead. There's also Richard Nixon (Michael Davenport), Joan Crawford (Carol Palmer) and Lillian Hellman (Andrea Reedy).

It's already quite the motley bunch before the final guest arrives - a special surprise who turns Judy's comeback special upside down. And despite spectacular performances by Paulding, Parrish and Wagner, the real treat here is the chorus (Holly Reese, Dean Krouch, Claire McConahay, John Bach), which provides just the right amount of cheese to this blast-from-the-past TV special. As Merman belts out the Hawaiian tune "Mauna Loa Hula Holiday," the chorus appears in grass skirts and Hawaiian shirts and tiki glasses and more, foolishly dancing around the stage with such persistently cheesy smiles that it's impossible not to laugh.

And while "Judy's Scary Little Christmas" is full of laughs, mostly at the expense of its characters' past failings, the play also reaches a point where each of those individuals is forced to confront those past failings, creating a more sentimental, if not depressing, mood as the audience watches these once-great icons who are now dealing with the fact that, somewhere along the line, they faltered as people and that, in turn, affected their careers. But the light-hearted and often heartfelt musical segments are always there to lighten the serious load. Near the end, however, when Judy has a strange interaction with a sailor, things get a bit too "Wizard of Oz" there's no place like home, but that's easily enough forgiven, considering "Judy's Scary Little Christmas" is entertaining enough throughout to ignore this perhaps over-sentimental monologue.

"Judy's Scary Little Christmas" will best appeal to the age group that is most familiar with the musical's characters, as subtle jokes appear that will be over the heads of those not privy to the nuances of, say, Liberace's in-the-closet existence and strange relationship with his mother. But all-in-all, StageWest has hit on a play that will surely become a favorite holiday alternative to the standard "Nutcracker" and "Best Christmas Pageant Ever."

Stage notes

For a review of "Little Shop of Horrors," the boy-meets-girl, plant-eats-world production coming to the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines on Tuesday, visit www.dmcityview.com on Wednesday afternoon... The Vaudeville Mews is gearing up for another holiday season with yet another batch of performances of David Sedaris' "The SantaLand Diaries" featuring local actor John Robinson, but for one weekend only Dec. 15 through 18. Tickets for "SantaLand," telling the hilarious holiday story of a disgruntled department store elf, are $10 general admission and $12 reserved seating through IowaTix.com. Saturday and Sunday matinee performances will feature an opening act from the Twin Cities. Tickets for those matinees will be $15 general admission and $17 reserved seating. And speaking of David Sedaris, the renowned humorist will be speaking at the Hoyt Sherman Place Theater on Saturday, April 22. Tickets are $40, and are on sale through IowaTix.com... The Gateway Dance Theatre troupe will perform a contemporary version of the nativity story - incorporating music from Spain, Brazil, Africa, India and more - in its performances at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 10 and 2:30 p.m. on Dec. 11 at Capitol Hill Lutheran Church. Tickets for "Un Nuevo Dio" are $12 for adults and $8 for children 12 and younger, and are available through the church, India Star Restaurant, Metro Arts Alliance, Zanzibar's Coffee Adventure and Gateway Dance Theatre. CV

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