This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
What is it about Christmas time that makes Americans--normally a weary group when it comes to breaking into song--suddenly become suckers for singing and dancing?
This holiday season, Los Angeles theaters are packed with shows celebrating the yuletide spirit--and most of these shows are musical comedies.
The biggest--and most traditional--production is an update of the old Paramount Bing Crosby-Danny Kaye movie, White Christmas. Currently running at the Pantages Theatre through January 1st, Irving Berlin's White Christmas is a hokey, "let;'s put on a show" musical. This Broadway-caliber version streamlines some of the film's rough edges--still retaining all of the original's show-biz schmaltz--but it doesn't feature performers who hold an advent candle to Crosby or Kaye.
The producers of Irving Berlin's White Christmas reportedly want to turn this show into an annual tradition--sort of a Nutcracker for showtunes junkies; but those looking for something that is legitimately becoming a Los Angeles Christmas tradition should check out this year's "99-cent; Only Extravaganza." This marks the fourth year that director Ken Roht has mounted one of his kaleidoscopic cavalcades of chintz--and once again, his zany vision is a joyous christmas confection.
Route 99: Orange Star Dinner Show is the title of this year's production. It's less Christmasy than past "99-cent;" shows, but no less fun--and while all its 2005 dates are sold out, it will return in January for four weeks.
It's hard to describe Route 99, except perhaps to suggest rural dinner theater as envisioned by John Waters. A chicken supper is available, but those who chose not to reserve a table: fear not, there's plenty of ham to be enjoyed on stage. Jabez Zuniga's Green Clover may be the hammiest of all, but everyone in the cast delivers giddy, over the top performances.
Not to be outdone in terms of high Christmas camp, just on the other side of the Hollywood sign, in Toluca Lake, another Los Angeles Theater tradition is the Troubadour Theater Company's annual holiday parody. In years past the Troubies have presented Santa Claus is Coming to Motown and It's a Stevie Wonderful Life, but this year it's the Little Drummer Bowie. Yes, it's the apocryphal story of the little drummer boy (of pah-rum-pum-pum-pum and claymation fame) told--loosely--using the music of David Bowie.
Unfortunately, the legend of the drummer boy and the music of Mr. Bowie don't really compliment each other. Only one number--a hilarious send up of the song "Space; Oddity"--really; works; and while there are plenty of humorous, clever moments, the show doesn't have the spark of some of the Troubadour's more inspired shows.
For real inspiration and revisionist history--not to mention genuine musical comedy--the holiday show to see is A Mulholland Christmas Carol. This full blown musical is a retelling of Dickens' Christmas Carol retold with LADWP's own William Mulholland as the Scrooge character.
The scurrilous history of bringing water to LA has been told before--most famously in Roman Polanski's Chinatown--but this musical comedy tells the story in a more comprehensive, as well as toe-tapping fashion. With amusing, sarcastic songs like "L.A.; River," "Our; Owens Valley Song," and of course, "This; Fine Dam," A Mulholland Christmas Carol uses the conventions of musical theater to entertain as well as to sharply comment on L.A.'s sordid civic history.
The cast assembled for this production at the Theatre of NOTE is not always vocally strong; but all of the actors perform with gusto, which helps Kiff Scholl's bare bones but effective staging. Still, it feels a bit like a workshop performance, yet the quality of Bill Robens' music and lyrics makes the experience worthwhile. With a few cuts and a bigger budget, A Mulholland Christmas Carol could become one of the growing number of bona-fide holiday traditions here in Los Angeles.
A Mulholland Christmas Carol runs until December 17 at the Theatre of NOTE, Little Drummer Bowie plays through December 23 at the Falcon Theatre.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.