By Michael Rossi
Hell in a Handbag Productions returns to the stage, marking its 20thAnniversary Season with new and familiar works that embrace Handbag’s mission of the preservation and celebration of camp and parody – exactly what we need right now! Tickets
Whatever Happened to Christmas Joan?
Joan Crawford was never really Joan Crawford. The legendary actress, born into Midwestern obscurity as Lucille LeSueur, was told by MGM Studios that her name was too close to ‘sewer.’ They ran a contest to rename the ingenue. Lucille thought ‘Crawford’ was too close to crawfish, but she was less worried about losing a name than never making one for herself.
A clear-eyed survivor, Joan Crawford always knew how to make herself into whatever people wanted. She arrived in Hollywood with no training, a thick accent, and a childhood driven by poverty and abuse. She didn’t have ‘a look,’ so she invented one using her own makeup, caking foundation over her natural freckles. That she rose through a cutthroat studio system to build a four-decade career is a testament to her ambition and grit. Yet when she is remembered today, it is often for the bombast of the tell-all Mommy Dearest, penned by her adopted daughter Christine, later made into a kitschy vehicle for Faye Dunaway.
All of this is background to the restaging of Hell in a Handbag’s delightful musical spoof Christmas Dearest. The play, which tosses Dickens’ A Christmas Carol into a blender with a dozen or so Golden Age references, imagines a fading Crawford in the role of Scrooge. Now on the downside of her career, Joan (David Cerna) is mounting another comeback, this time in a gaudy nativity musical. But a lifetime spent fending off hacks, rivals, and her own aging have embittered Crawford, who takes it out on everyone around her, particularly her long-suffering assistant, Carol Anne (Ed Jones), and daughter, Christina (Mark Barty). Swaddled in her own entitlement and grievances, Joan is visited by three Christmas spirits (Tyler Anthony Smith, Danne W. Taylor, and Caitlyn Jackson) who show her visions of Christmases past, present, and future. Lessons are learned, Charlestons are danced, and little crippled boys are made to feel the magic of the holiday season. Also, there are puppets.
This is Cerda’s show from the first light, as it’s his book, lyrics, music, and performance that find genuine heart amidst the layers of parody. His Joan is a hilarious center of gravity, simultaneously lampooning Crawford as a preening diva while also suggesting the toughness, vulnerability, and single-mindedness that made her a star. Within minutes he’s able to wring a laugh from the audience with little more than a raised eyebrow, and his energy is matched by a game and madcap ensemble. Standouts include Smith as a well-soused Ghost of Christmas Past and Barty as Crawford’s indignant, petulant daughter. Maiko Terazawa and Marissa Williams play past versions of Joan and are so energetic in their movements and choreography that they make a cramped stage feel like the Gershwin Theatre.
Of course, any rendering of Crawford must evoke her extravagance, and Hell in a Handbag productions are well-known for their invention and resourcefulness. Costume designers Uriel Gomez and Kate Setzer Kamphausen summon Crawford’s essence through shoulder pads and leg slits and wig designer Keith Ryan earned a solid 30-seconds of laughter out of his recreation of Bette Davis’s most iconic look. The aforementioned puppets—used to evoke everything from nativity sheep to flying scene changes—are vigorously performed by Lolly Extract, whose mute enthusiasm brought several performers to the verge of breaking. This is one of those plays where every prop has a gag attached to it and every ensemble member is entertaining to watch, even in silence.
The show is a treat for eagle-eyed fans of both Crawford and Dickens, weaving in easter eggs and winking references to Crawford’s life and works. But it is at its best when it sets aside the parody and allows the woman at the heart of it all to ponder the price of female ambition. “Are we monsters?” Joan asks Bette Davis late in the show, and it’s clear that the question is meant to interrogate the choices and sacrifices required of successful women. The conversation observes how the famous rivals were always “working together by tearing [one another] apart,” and at points one wishes the show would explore that sentiment—as resonant today as then—rather than another coat hanger gag.
Still, it’s hard to find fault with parody so lovingly rendered, and it’s a tribute to Cerda and director Derek Van Barham’s vision that this Crawford can at once embody camp and pathos. One wonders how the original icon—who gave up her name and face so long ago—would feel to see her long struggle compressed into a zany spoof. But the audience was filled with fans, who laughed and cheered and leapt to their feet at cast bows. It means something that she’s still knocking ‘em dead, long after her rivals are gone and forgotten. Joan Crawford survives. Come see the show.