If you've ever thought of a critic as an ogre whose appearance at the box office sets the theater clan trembling with fear and trepidation, guess again. Here's what happened when I tried to get in to see Scrooge in Rouge at Le Chat Noir.
'We're sold out."
'Okay, I'll sit in the light booth."
'Sorry, there's already someone in the light booth."
'Okay, here's my last offer: I'll sit in the light booth and rattle the chains when the ghost enters. Take it or leave it."
They took it. Although they didn't trust me with the chains.
It's easy to see why Scrooge in Rouge was such a hit: lots of talent, lots of imagination. Ricky Graham's book and lyrics were, as he says, 'somewhat loosely based on the idea of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens." (Graham also directed.) Additional material was added by Jeffery Roberson (aka the marvelous Varla Jean Merman). Yvette Hargis contributed other interesting bits.
These three knockout entertainers played all of the parts " a premise explained within the play as the result of 17 other Royal Music Hall Variety Players members suffering the effects of the previous night's cast party. The quick-change comedy divided most of the roles between Graham and Merman, who played almost all of the women. Hargis, meanwhile, was the central focus for a good deal of the evening as a male-impersonator Scrooge. Though we tend to associate this type of gender bending with our confused, postmodern world, it actually has a history on the stage that reaches back to music hall entertainment and beyond. In any case, Graham, Merman and Hargis were in top form.
They sang well " to the original tunes by Jefferson Turner, who accompanied on the piano. The tone of the evening, however, was music hall in the sense that the songs were meant to be fun, pure and simple. Occasionally, the cast even got laughs where they didn't deserve them, which may be the highest compliment of all. At times, the script wandered via a non-euclidean geometry reminiscent of the Marx Brothers, like when a character started shouting he needed a 'henway." 'What's a henway?" inquired another. 'Oh, about three and half pounds."
At its most basic, the set represented Her Majesty's Promenade Grand Theatre. In fact, Queen Victoria herself, whose portrait frowned at us from the stage, instructed her subjects to turn off their electronic devices. I shudder to think of the fate that would have befallen anyone rebellious enough to have failed in this act of loyal submission. But once the spoof got going, the story zipped from location to location with little attention to detail. Cecile Casey Covert's costumes, Amanda Hebert's at-times towering wigs and Su Gonczy's lighting gave most of the necessary visual cues.
Some of the humor was as dark as these nights of solstice are long. Maybe it's the British connection that saved the impudent sallies from becoming ghoulish " like when Scrooge's sister tells him his father has forgiven him for everything ... almost ...'except for the time mother gave birth to you and then died." This business of mothers kicking the bucket and leaving behind offspring seems to haunt the tale as much as the famous pedagogical revenants. Scrooge's neglect of his nephew is even creepier when we realize that the old buzzard had a special obligation to look out for the young guy. But, as they say, let's not go there. If we make light of the moral import in Dickens' tale, her imperious majesty would not be amused.
Anyway, Scrooge in Rouge is lighthearted, rather than cynical. After the show, I was told by the man who ripped all the velcro-attached costumes off the quick-changing players backstage that there are plans to make the show a regular Christmas event. In spite of the half dozen or so Scrooge productions out there already, this seems like a good idea. Thanks to Running With Scissors, Grenadine McGunkle has staked her claim as a purveyor of low-brow holiday hilarity in the Quarter. And of course, we have the candlelit caroling in Jackson Square " an observance so traditional it might moisten the eye of Victoria herself. But the meteoric success of Scrooge in Rouge bodes well for a return engagement " a new comic star in the firmament.
- Yvette Hargis (l. to r.), Varla Jean Merman, Jefferson Turner and Ricky Graham (seated) turned A Chrismas Carol into a blushing holiday musical.