ORLANDO – Imagine you’re a big star in the 1960s, winning a Tony award for playing Dolly Levi in “Hello Dolly!” and cutting 10 gold albums, snagging an academy award nomination for best supporting actress for your role in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” taking home a Lifetime Achievement Award for your collective body of work on the Broadway stage.
Then along comes the 1970s, and public tastes begin to change. New faces are getting all the attention; you find yourself taking roles in “The Love Boat” on TV and in movie bombs like “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Pretty soon you’re doing “Hollywood Squares” next to Big Bird – is there any more desperate sign of a career that’s tanking?
If you’re Carol Channing, you might just leap at the opportunity to take the lead role in “A Christmas Carol” if it brings you back to the stage, and does it in one of the world’s great tourism Mecca’s: Orlando. So when Channing learns that Ashton Kutcher had to drop out of the lead playing Scrooge, you zip down to Orlando in record time.
There’s just one problem. Standing on stage before a full house at the Footlight Theatre on Orange Blossom Trail, Channing gets a bit confused, and finally has to ask: “So this isn’t Epcot? And we’re not doing the Candlelight Processional?”
Not even close. Channing flew down to Orlando to perform in “Wanzie’s Glittering Star-Studded A Christmas Carol: A Dickens-inspired Celebrity Cavalcade Holiday Spectacle!” at none other than the Parliament House, the gay resort where drag shows, campy humor and muscular, half naked bartenders reign supreme. Channing’s career may never be the same.
Tis the season for holiday productions, and it’s amazing to see how durable Charles Dickens’ tale of Ebenezer Scrooge has been since it was first published in 1843. There are no fewer than 11 different versions of “A Christmas Carol” being produced across Central Florida theaters right now, and in a fine testament to Mr. Dickens, the productions are remarkably diverse.
Theatre Downtown offers a very faithful version of the tale featuring a large cast, while “Dickens by Candlelight: A Christmas Carol” at the Dr. Phillips Center for Performing Arts reduces it to a cast of three, and the Southern Winds Theatre presents David A. McElroy playing every role in “A One-Man Christmas Carol” at the Starlight Video & Coffee shop in Winter Park. Two Lake County theaters – The Bay Street Players in Eustis and the Moonlight Players in Clermont – offer competing versions of the comedy “The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge.”
“Wanzie’s Glittering Star-Studded A Christmas Carol” has got to be one of the most unique, because it reinvents the Dickens tale in a variety of ways: gay campy humor, burlesque show, drag performances, and, most entertainingly, as a hilarious send up of Hollywood and Broadway celebs. Conceived by the Parliament House’s resident theatrical genius, Michael Wanzie, this is “A Christmas Carol” performed by the biggest names in gay-friendly entertainment – Liza Minnelli, Cher, Lucille Ball, Barbra Streisand, etc. – and begs the question: if Wanzie really could line them all up for a star-studded performance of “A Christmas Carol,” could they play it straight and leave the ham for Christmas day supper?
The answer, not surprisingly, is: don’t count on it.
Wanzie, who is as funny an actor as he is a writer, happily grants himself a lead role in this show, playing himself as the narrator of “A Christmas Carol”; he also becomes a sort of referee to the lineup of spotlight-hogging stars. Stung by the disappointment of losing Kutcher as his lead, Wanzie nevertheless is happy to accept Channing as a substitute, although the two are soon clashing over stage direction and character development. But neither one seems quite prepared for just how zany this version of Scrooge is about to get when the casting includes Marlee Matlin as Bob Cratchit and Liza Minnelli as Tiny Tim. Honestly now, how many earlier productions of “A Christmas Carol” have given you Bob Cratchit swearing in sign language or Tiny Tim lamenting all those failed marriages to gay men?
Part of this production’s charm is Wanzie’s increasingly angry reactions to his hammy performers, who glide off book every chance they get, and to the terrific ensemble work being done here. It’s amazing to think of how good the Footlight Theatre’s regular performers are, including Miss Sammy, who does some spot-on imitations of Cher, Lucille Ball, Streisand and Joan Crawford, lip syncing to some of their well known hits.
Carol Lee, also known as the official guest hostess of the Footlight Players Show, is a riot as Carol Channing, looking alternately thrilled to be on stage and befuddled at how increasingly bizarre this production gets – although, in the true spirit of “The show must go on,” Channing rolls with every bit of craziness tossed at her.
Gidget Galore grabs some big laughs as Liza, but it would be hard to top Doug Ba’aser, who is side-splittingly funny in the near silent role of Marlee Matlin. Just his expressions alone brought on so much laughter from the audience that it would be hard to imagine this show without him.
“Wanzie’s Glittering Star-Studded A Christmas Carol” is a typical Wanzie grab-bag of successful elements – music, dancing, wild humor, impersonations, truly tasteless gags – all done at a speed that keeps you glued to that stage through every second of Scrooge’s …. er, Carol Channing’s …. deliriously wacky adventures. It’s sort of a “Best Of” or “Greatest Hits” soundtrack for the Parliament House’s ongoing entertainment efforts, ideal for those who say Bah! Humbug to taking the holidays too seriously.
“Wanzie’s Glittering Star-Studded A Christmas Carol” plays at 7:30 p.m. on Saturdays, and 8 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 20, the final performance. The Footlight Theatre is at 410 N. Orange Blossom Trail at the Parliament House. Tickets are $12 in advance (by logging on to www.wanzie.com) or $14 at the door, and $10 in advance or $12 at the door for the Dec. 20 industry night show.