Chicago Theatre Review
A Blast From Christmas Past
The Rip Nelson Holiday Spectacular – Hell in a Handbag
Anyone of a certain age will fondly remember family gatherings around the television, in order to enjoy the many variety shows that featured the entertainers-of-the-day. During the Christmas season, especially, there were TV spectaculars with lots of stars performing heartwarming holiday songs and comic skits. In Mary’s Attic it’s 1982 and famed comedian and stage actor, Paul Lynde, has just passed away. When television producers are left without a star to host The Christmas Spectacular, sponsored by Kraft Foods, they unexpectedly call upon his rival, the second-rate comedian, Rip Nelson. Fresh from rehab, Nelson, with the help of his friend and assistant, Gladys, gears up for what could be the comedian’s big comeback.
David Cerda follows up his popular 2010 production, “The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular,” with this new, original holiday extravaganza. He’s dug deep into the annals of entertainment history and probed the Ghost of Christmas Past to find the perfect costars to join Rip Nelson. Included are fellow comedian Dom Deluise, Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner, TV and film celebrity Kermit the Frog and famed magician Doug Henning. To provide some magical musical moments he’s included the Lennon Sisters, the King Family Singers, Patti LaBelle and even Liza Minnelli.
The onstage songs and production numbers are the undisputed highlights of this new show. The Spectacular features several holiday favorites to make the season bright, such as a medley comprised of “Winter Wonderland,” “White Christmas” and “Silver Bells.” There’s also a comic bit to the tune of “Frosty the Snowman,” as well as Liza’s heartfelt rendition of her mama’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The number that really brings a tear to the eye is Kermit’s “The Rainbow Connection,” revamped as a touching Christmas carol. Other musical numbers include “Abracadabra,” “A New Attitude” and even a strange performance of “Memory.”
Cerda also offers a glimpse into the true character behind the titular comedian. Rip Nelson, a man conflicted with self doubts, is constantly fighting his own personal demons of dependency and sexual identity. Lucky for him he has good friends, like Gladys (played with tough love by Lori Lee), as well as several of his television costars. Hell in a Handbag’s talented topliner Ed Jones plays the insecure, troubled entertainer with so much sensitivity, poignancy and polish. However, the backstage banter and battles tend to bring down the festivity of the show. The sadder scenes suck the comedy from the room, which is really what Cerda’s audiences come here to enjoy. Then the cast, under Steve Love’s able direction, must again rev up the show’s bawdy brashness that everyone loves. It’s an interesting idea to show us the man behind the curtain, but holiday audiences would probably prefer less drear and more Christmas cheer from the Wizard.
The entire supporting cast are all fantastic performers. Standouts include a divine, dazzling Liza Minelli, portrayed by the magnificent Alexa Castelvecchi; Bruce Jenner, in a spot-on portrayal by the always entertaining Chazie Bly; Robert Williams’ larger-than-life drag impersonation of Patti LaBelle; hippy dippy illusionist Doug Henning, played to perfection by David Lipschutz; Tommy Bullington’s hilarious incarnation of Dom Deluise; and Scott Ray Merchant’s Kermit the Frog that’s right on the money. The lovely Lennon Sisters are comprised of AJ Wright, Anna Seiburt and Kristopher Bottrall, while the kitschy King Family Singers are performed by Terry McCarthy, Grant Drager and Adrian Hadlock. All of these characters come to life costumed with camp delight by Kate Setzer Kamphausen.
This production is a mostly fun, ditzy, lighthearted tuneful alternative to Chicago’s holiday entertainment. While audiences certainly don’t have to be gay to enjoy it, the more liberal theatergoer and members of the LGBT community will find that this production especially speaks to them. Supported by a talented company of actor/singer/dancers, it’s always a delightful evening anytime Ed Jones takes the stage. However, a little less angst and more animated amusement would be more appreciated and better served in such a nostalgic blast from Christmas Past.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 20-December 30 by Hell in a Handbag Productions at Mary’s Attic, 5400 N. Clark St., Chicago.
Tickets are available at the door, by calling 800-838-3006 or by going to www.handbagproductions.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.