ORLANDO – Where do once popular celebrities go when their star has faded and public tastes have moved on to someone new? If you were around in the 1970s and were thinking “Hollywood Squares” or “The Love Boat,” that’s a good example for the sorry plight of those in has-been-land.
These days, those once-cookin’ celebs might settle for a brief reality show on cable or maybe just posting lots of YouTube videos, hoping one of them catches fire. Or they could try something else: a return to the stage. Assuming that Broadway isn’t interested, there’s always community theater, and if they can land a role on a stage in a big city filled with tourists – say, a city like Orlando – and at a place with a ready-made audience of campy humor lovers – say, a spot like the Footlight Theatre at the gay resort known as the Parliament House – chances are you’ve got your ticket to something good.
No wonder Carol Channing, an Oscar nominee turned sinking “Love Boat” survivor, would jump at the opportunity to play the lead role of Scrooge in Michael Wanzie’s “Glittering Star-Studded A Christmas Carol,” even if she is a very last minute – try a few moments after the play has started – replacement for another actor who couldn’t make it.
It doesn’t help that Channing only knows how to play one thing – Carol Channing. Or that she persistently annoys Wanzie, the narrator of the Charles Dickens classic, by repeatedly calling him “Fonzie,” or that she’s replacing stud man Hugh Jackman, who had originally been hired to play Scrooge. When you have a room full of gay men who were expecting Jackman and get an aging Carol Channing instead, it could be a recipe for disaster.
Or, depending on how you look at it, an absolutely hilarious production.
The genius behind Wanzie’s decidedly twisted version of the Dickens classic is that it plays off the notion that celebrities – even the ones whose fan clubs include few if any twentysomethings, and who essentially milk nostalgia to land their next booking – simply can’t resist doing what they’ve always done, which is to be, act and perform the persona they created and milked successfully for so many years, until public tastes shifted and the gravy train developed lumps.
When Channing rushes in at the last moment, to rescue poor Wanzie from playing both the narrator and Scrooge, there’s a sidesplittingly funny exchange when she begins reading the wrong script – she had assumed that since this is Orlando, she’d be reciting the narration for Walt Disney World’s annual Candlelight Processional at Epcot. Wanzie is more than happy to angrily correct her.
The fact that Wanzie scores an even bigger laugh a little later with another Candlelight Processional joke is a testament to his great gift for comedic play-writing. And he sure does have fun with this one, giving us a fairly believable look at how some aging stars like Liza Minnelli, Rip Taylor, Lucille Ball and others, would react if they got to play a role in a community theater production of “A Christmas Carol.” The fact that all of it is so fiendishly funny doesn’t detract one bit from the fact that it all seems totally plausible. You have to ask, if given the opportunity to play the role of Tiny Tim, could Minnelli truly resist hogging the stage to belt out her version of “God Bless The Child?” Maybe, but I doubt this.
It helps to have some great actor/impersonators handling the roles. Hamburger Mary’s own Carol Lee is a riot as Carol Channing, getting her voice, mannerisms and giddy nature down pat, and having a blast as she makes every effort to hog the stage, often times seemingly oblivious to the insanity going on all around her. Miss Sammy, as usual, does some spot on perfect imitations of Cher, Lucille Ball and Barbra Streisand, and Gidget Galore scores some huge belly laughs as the Liza who hopes she won’t end up “like mama,” but later turns down an offer of a Pepsi because she decides to “stick to my coke.”
And then there’s the glorious Doug Ba’aser, who not only is a scream as Rip Taylor, but even better, has some of the show’s most hilarious moments in a near-silent role as Marlee Matlin. Just watching Ba’aser play the deaf actress, with the expressions he makes and the frantic gestures meant to be sign language, become painful to watch after a while, because you’re going to be laughing so hard that it hurts.
Wanzie’s version of “A Christmas Carol” has few if any sacred cows, takes no prisoners, is not for those easily who are easily offended … and it sure won’t make anyone think of the Disney animated version. But the truth is, with so much in the way of really good entertainment to pick from around here during the holiday season, this may be one of the top three events guaranteed to leave you feeling so, so good and to be smiling and laughing on your way out the door – not a bad way to get into the holiday spirit, after all.
And the truth is, Dickens never had it so good.
“Wanzie’s Glittering Star-Studded A Christmas Carol,” also subtitled “A Dickens-inspired Celebrity Cavalcade Holiday Spectacle,” runs Saturdays through Dec. 17, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $16 in advance and $20 at the door. To learn more, log on to Wanzie Presents.
The Footlight Theatre is at 410 N. Orange Blossom Trail in downtown Orlando.
Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.