Desert Rose Playhouse is kicking off the holiday season in high style with a return of Christmas With the Crawfords, created by Richard Winchester and written by Mark Sargent. Artistic director Robbie Wayne is hoping to repeat the successful run the production enjoyed last season—and if the opening night audience’s reaction is any indication, his hopes are definitely being met.
Most of last year’s cast has returned to reprise their roles in this fun holiday romp, ably directed by Kam Sisco, who also plays Joan Crawford.
One of the most impressive elements of this show is Matthew McLean’s spectacular set. It’s Hollywood glam, holiday-style—and the sophisticated blend of white, silver and blue is simply stunning. It made me want to grab a glass of champagne and join the party myself. Desert Rose has always built outstanding sets, but this one is particularly superb.
The story revolves around a live radio broadcast on Christmas Eve, in 1944, at the Brentwood home of Hollywood legend Joan Crawford. (The play is based on an actual Christmas Eve broadcast that took place in 1949.) Having been labeled “box office poison” by MGM, Joan is desperately trying to revive her film career. Insulted that she must take a screen test to land the lead in the Warner Bros. film Mildred Pierce, Crawford has enlisted her friend Hedda Hopper (Timm McBride) to set up the radio interview. Later that evening, Jack Warner himself is scheduled to arrive to talk business.
Children Christina (Larry Martin) and Christopher (Christine Tringali Nunes) are crucial parts of the perfect family portrait Crawford is attempting to portray. Dressed matching red plaid outfits, the two have clearly been drilled on what to do and say. As the evening wears on, however, Christina’s disdain for her “Mommy Dearest” becomes apparent. Baby Jane Hudson (also played by Timm McBride) is now working as Crawford’s servant, and the animosity between the two women has not waned a bit.
As the broadcast gets under way, surprise guests begin showing up at the door. Katharine Hepburn and Carmen Miranda (Ed Lefkowitz), Mae West and Ethel Merman (Stan Jenson), Gloria Swanson (Timothy McIntosh), Judy Garland (Anthony Nannini) and even the Andrews Sisters (a mix of the aforementioned) arrive, having gotten lost trying to find neighbor Gary Cooper’s home. Cooper is throwing a large holiday bash—to which Joan has not been invited. The snub, and the competition for attention, only fuel Joan’s anger and insecurity.
The performances here are uniformly stellar. There’s no question that everyone onstage is having a ball, which certainly ramps up the fun for the audience. Sisco’s Crawford is perfect. His long legs enhance the effect of the splendid gowns he wears throughout the show, and the over-the top wig, huge red lips and ever-present evil sneer are perfect. Sisco truly embodies the desperation and bitterness of the fading Hollywood star Crawford was at that time.
It is hard to believe that McBride plays both Baby Jane Hudson and Hedda Hopper; the transformation into both characters is complete. When he makes his entrance as Baby Jane—dressed all in pink and white, and sporting blonde pigtails—it is impossible not to laugh. His bit on the phone with the local grocery store ordering booze for the evening’s festivities is terrific, as is his version of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.” His performance as PR maven Hedda Hopper is equally strong—all business, in an appropriate tweed suit.
McIntosh’s Gloria Swanson is fabulous. Garbed in black chiffon, he nails Swanson’s facial expressions and far-off stare. One of the marks of a true professional actor is what they do onstage when another actor has the spotlight. Staying in character when one is in the background is crucial—and not always easy. McIntosh is Gloria Swanson every second he’s onstage … except, of course, when he is one of the Andrews Sisters. He, Jenson and Nannini bring the trio back to life early in the show, with a rousing number about Hanukkah in Santa Monica.
Jenson, who also plays both Mae West and Ethel Merman, is a hoot. The juxtaposition of his blonde Mae West wig and pink feathered gown with his beard stubble and low growl is quite funny. He has great comic timing and is a joy to watch.
Lefkowitz also successfully juggles two roles: Katharine Hepburn and Carmen Miranda. Though his Miranda is decked out in loud colors, huge earrings and a fruit-bedecked turban, he worries that his dress is too plain: “I feel like a stripped weasel!”
Martin (Christina) and Nunes (Christopher) are splendid. As the only female in the show, Nunes was tapped to play Crawford’s son, and nails his wide-eyed innocence. As Christina, Martin really makes us feel the girl’s growing resentment toward her controlling mother.
Every actor in Christmas With the Crawfords is amazing, but if there is a standout in the cast, it has to be Nannini as Judy Garland. You simply cannot take your eyes off him. Dressed in a black-sequined tux jacket, fishnets, dance pants and heels, with Nannini perfectly capturing her gestures and facials expressions, it’s not to believe he isn’t actually Judy. He nearly steals the show with his lip-quivering version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
If Bruce Weber and Matt Torres do not win Desert Theatre League awards for best costuming for this show, there is no justice in the world. The hair and make-up are fabulous as well.
The only minor flaw in this production came at the end: The timing and intensity of the dramatic yet campy finale seemed a tad muted. I would like to see a bigger bang at the end, and perhaps a faster blackout. I am betting that will happen as the run continues.
Congrats to Desert Rose Playhouse for knocking it out of the park once again: Christmas With the Crawfords is pure fun.
Christmas With the Crawfords is performed at 7 p.m., Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 22, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the run time is about 90 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.