Friday, December 23, 2011

Cheerfully Contributing To The War on Christmas

Humor is one of life's greatest coping mechanisms. Whether struggling with seasonal depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or any number of life's bitter disappointments, the ability to laugh can go a long way toward inverting a frown so that it is transformed into a smile.

Those who are blessed with a robust sense of humor, a taste for irony, and a hunger for iconoclastic moments have it made in the shade, In Mary Poppins (a 1964 movie musical starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke), veteran comedian Ed Wynn appeared as Bert's eternally ebullient Uncle Albert.

Ed Wynn also voiced the character of the Mad Hatter in Walt Disney's 1951 full-length animated version of Alice in Wonderland. Together with the March Hare and the Dormouse, the Mad Hatter taught Alice how much fun it can be to celebrate one's un-birthday.

While self-righteous Christians can't stop grousing about the Obama family's nonsectarian Christmas card (and House Speaker John Boehner can't let go of his deep-seated desire to become a 21st century version of Ebeneezer Scrooge), plenty of people are having themselves a rollicking good time mocking Christmas. If you watch the first two minutes of the San Francisco Theatre Pub's SuperStar holiday event, you'll hear Stuart Bousel do his bit to put the Christ back in Christmas in a way that could make Bill O'Reilly and Sarah Palin soil themselves simultaneously!

As David Sirota so eloquently explained on
"Like a narcissist’s souped-up 4-by-4, this turbocharged colossus of self-righteous indignation makes a lot of noise and leaves a mess in its wake, but ultimately says a lot more about its drivers’ pitiable insecurities than anything else. These zealots are interested in pretending their fellow Christians are somehow oppressed, contradictory facts be damned. In propagating such an illusion, they’re not earnestly embodying their religion’s missionary spirit. Instead, they’re manufacturing victimhood, all to gin up sympathy and create a rationale to continue ramrodding their theology down everyone else’s throats. That some feel this need to push their faith with such craven tactics speaks volumes about the nature of spiritual self-doubt today."
Thankfully, comedians like Jon Stewart are always happy to put the War on Christmas in its proper context.  Stewart, in fact, recently declared his own War on Christmas (subtitled "Operation Godless Shit Storm").

Each December, the holiday season brings a lineup of traditional Christmas entertainment (The Nutcracker, A Christmas Carol, Handel's Messiah, and Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel) as well as events that might be referred to as "un-Christmas" classics. Taken separately, they can be used to dampen the forced sweetness of the holidays. Attending more than one of these events is usually as effective as injecting insulin.

* * * * * * * * *
What happens when a beloved artist or comedic group starts to become too familiar? Perhaps a doting audience of loyal fans has watched the same material be performed over an increasing number of years. Perhaps that doting (and aging) audience is looking for less shock value and more nostalgic coziness.

An act can be freshened up with new material or it can try to age gracefully. Even though they've been performing their holiday show ("Oy Vey in a Manger") for Bay area audiences for several years, The Kinsey Sicks have never been interested in doing anything gracefully. Keenly attuned to the changing political tides, they have insisted upon staying relevant.

In fact, the Kinseys have become so concerned with the lack of a viable Republican candidate for the 2012 Presidential election that they're about to run for office.

The Kinseys returned to the Herbst Theatre on December 17 with some notable differences in their show. Instead of hoping that guests would arrive for their holiday party, the Kinseys pretended they were trying to sell their house in a market where many neighboring homes had been foreclosed upon. As they readied their living room for a realtor's tour, they stressed that, in the current parlance, their home was being referred to as a "Bethlehem steal!"

The Kinsey Sicks put their home up for sale in
the 2011 version of  Oy Vey in a Manager

Often, when reading up on the backgrounds of the four men who form the Kinsey Sicks (Irwin Keller and Ben Schatz are lawyers), I come across a delicious tidbit, like this story from Jeff Manabat's childhood:
"When I was a kid, there was a dress hanging out somewhere. I think my mom was buying first communion presents for somebody. I was seven years old, or six, I don't remember. And I had just watched Mary Poppins. I saw Mary Poppins with her big umbrella and her big dress floating around and I thought, 'If I wear that dress, I could float around, too.' Because I wanted to fly, and my identical twin brother and I saw it, and we were just like, 'We want to wear that dress!' So, we put it on -- we didn't put it on together, we put it on one at a time -- and then we started jumping off of the couch in the dress in the hopes that the wind would catch the dress and we'd be floating around the living room. So, that was my first experience in drag."
The Kinsey Sicks in Oy Vey in a Manger

This year's performance included some of the Kinseys' traditional holiday chestnuts (I'm Dreaming of a Betty White ChristmasSoylent NightHave Yourself A Harried Little Christmas, and 'Tis The Season To Drink Stoli). As expected, each of the girls had their special moments onstage:
One simple shift in the order of songs had a surprisingly strong impact on the evening. In past years, the Kinseys have opened many shows with their theme song, "Dragapella." Based on the famous Hallelujah Chorus (composed by George Frideric Handel for his 1741 oratorio, Messiah), "Dragapella" demonstrates how the Kinseys take familiar pieces of music, rewrite the lyrics, and turn them into brilliant pieces of satire.

This year, the Kinseys moved "Dragapella" down to the closing slot (slut?) of the evening, which brilliantly summed up the group's talents and punctuated the performance in a way that said "We made this style and now we own it!"

* * * * * * * * *
Like the Kinsey Sicks, Sharon McNight has built a loyal following in San Francisco and other gay meccas. With the voice of a big. brassy belter, she's made countless appearances at AIDS benefits and helped to keep alive a tradition of Bawdy Songs and Backroom Ballads in the style of Oscar Brand, Sophie Tucker, and Rusty Warren.

McNight's CDs include titles like Songs to Offend Almost Everyone, "Offensive, Too," and The Sophie Tucker Songbook. Often described as a singing fag hag, she boasts of being one of the few "real' women to impersonate Bette Davis as part of her act.

Currently on the faculty at Yale University's Cabaret Conference, Sharon has been singing professionally for nearly 30 years. The following clip (taken from a performance for the New York Sheet Music Society) gives a good idea of McNight's intensity and focus when she is at the top of her game.

McNight touched down at The Rrazz Room this week for two performances of her holiday cabaret show entitled Twisted Xmas: A Druid's View of the Holidays. Although she included such favorites as "Merry Christmas from the Family" and "San Francisco Bye-Bye," while imitating Mae West she accidentally hit on a disturbing truth.

West liked to claim that "When I'm good, I'm very good. And when I'm bad I'm even better." McNight can be a fearless musical comedian. Like Mae West, when Sharon is good, she can be very good, indeed

Unfortunately, when McNight is not in top form, she's a very uneven performer (depending on how inebriated her audience is, this often becomes a nonissue).  Alas, there were too many moments during Tuesday's opening night performance when McNight seemed in need of a strong director. Nothing more, nothing less.

Sharon McNight recently appeared at the Rrazz Room in
Twisted Xmas: A Druid's View of the Holidays

* * * * * * * * *
The early reading experiences of many children exposed them to the wit and imagination of Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel). Whether delighting in such books as Horton Hears A Who! or The Cat in the Hat. Geisel's books gave many children their first awareness of how much fun it can be to create rhymes.

First published in 1957, How The Grinch Stole Christmas! has gone through numerous adaptations. In 1966, it was made into an animated television special with Boris Karloff as the narrator. In 2000, Jim Carrey starred in a live-action version of How The Grinch Stole Christmas!

But it is the musical adaptation by Mel Marvin (with book and lyrics by Timothy Mason) that has been delighting audiences for more than a decade. First presented at the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis, a revised production directed by Jack O'Brien at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego in 1998 added some of Albert Hague's songs from the 1966 television special.

Since then, Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical! (which uses the original choreography by John DeLuca and Bob Richard) has been box office gold. In the following clip, the Grinch (played by Stefan Karl ) is interviewed prior to a run of performances in Houston.

An Icelandic actor who has had great fun in the role, Karl arrived in town in the traveling production with sets designed by  John Lee Beatty, costumes by Robert Morgan and wigs by Thomas Augustine. According to Seth Bazacas (who appears as Young Max):
"Back when the book was printed, you could only use black and white and red (and from that you could get grays and pinks). So, other than the Grinch himself being green, they used that color palette across the board, even on the set which is kind of interesting. The color palette they’ve chosen is very true to the book.  It’s like you literally fall into the pages of that book, which is a really neat concept. Every prop, even down to the littlest packages and little toys, looks just like things that you can go through the Dr. Seuss book and see pictures of and point out. It’s really cool."

Directed by by Matt August (with an energetic cast), this 80-minute show is narrated by Bob Lauder as  Old Max (the Grinch's dog) as he looks back on the night the Grinch tried to steal Christmas from the residents of Whoville. As evidenced by the following clip, there isn't an ounce of subtlety in the show (and that's cause for celebration).

Bailey Ryon was absolutely delightful as Cindy-Lou Who (as was Seth Bazacas as young Max). However, the show truly belongs to the actor playing the Grinch. Although there isn't any video available of Stefan Karl's super campy rendition of "One of a Kind," in the following clip you can watch him perform the song during a publicity stop at a radio station.

Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical! continues at the Golden Gate Theatre through December 29 (click here to order tickets). Attendance is strongly recommended (it's the least you can do to help continue the War on Christmas considering that Carole Shorenstein Hays and the show's producers are among the holiday season's true "job creators").

No comments: