ORLANDO – Imagine that a television producer comes up with an idea for a holiday show: a new version of Charles Dickens’ classic novella “A Christmas Carol.” And here’s the catch to draw the audience away from sitcoms and reality shows: cast it with well-known celebrities, those larger-than-life personalities who command a stage or screen in an all-too-familiar way, creating an instant rapport wth the audience. Imagine “Hollywood Squares” or “The Love Boat” meets Dickens.
If that sounds disastrous – let’s just say that certain actors are not everyone’s idea of Scrooge, or Tiny Tim, or the Ghost of Christmas Past – and if a hammy celeb wrecking Dickens with excessive mugging seems like a recipe for a sure flop, consider that it actually depends on who is doing the show.
If it’s a serious attempt at a classic Dickens, a perennial that shows up on television every Christmas season, then in all likelihood the reviews the next day will be focusing on just how awful it was.
If, on the other hand, your aim is comedic mayhem, the chances of a successful production go through the roof.
Just ask Orlando’s Michael Wanzie. He knows a thing or two about this.
The playwright, actor and artistic director of the Footlight Theatre at the Parliament House Resort in downtown Orlando has spent the past few years giving audiences his very unique version of the Dickens saga – “Wanzie’s Glittering Star-Studded A Christmas Carol.” Also billed as “A Dickens-inspired Celebrity Cavalcade Holiday Spectacle,” this is less Dickens than over-the-top campy gay humor vaudeville – and quite unique comedic lunacy at that.
In putting together this P-House-inspired Dickens, Wanzie entices a number of very prominent celebrities to play the leading roles, including Liza Minnelli, Cher, Barbra Streisand, Rip Taylor and Marlee Matlin. The biggest coup is landing hunk Ryan Gosling to play Scrooge, but in the production I caught, it was announced at the start of the show that Gosling couldn’t make it, so the talent agency sent over a substitute – Carol Channing, star of Broadway and many a long-forgotten “Love Boat” episode. Can Carol truly deliver a convincing Scrooge? No – thankfully for us, as it turns out!
As you can well imagine, the show does not feature all those celebs under one roof, but rather Wanzie’s collection of theatrical favorites like Carol Lee, Miss Sammy, Doug White, Doug Ba’aser and Gidget Galore – drag performers more than capable of not only doing spot-on impersonations of those celebrities past and present, but also those Hollywood stars playing all those readily familiar Dickens characters. If that sounds confusing, hilarious is actually a better word.
Wanzie opens the show as the narrator, and starts to read the Dickens story when he gets the word that Gosling is out, Channing is in. She charges into the room with the subtlety of a bull in a China shop, ready to entertain in that uniquely Carol Channing way. In no time at all, she’s driving Wanzie up the wall.
When Wanzie praises Channing, saying “Your reputation proceeds you,” she replies, “Aren’t you sweet, Fonzie.”
But that’s nothing compared to the moment when she starts reading the script with passion and drive and emotion – only, it’s the wrong script entirely. A furious Wanzie stops her in mid-sentence.
“So this isn’t Epcot?” Channing asks. “We’re not doing the Candlelight Processional?”
Wanzie explodes with anger, the audience explodes in laughter, and it’s still just the start of the show, and it’s only going to get better.
The sheer pleasure of “Wanzie’s Glittering Star-Studded A Christmas Carol” is watching the so-called celebrities being unable to resist playing themselves more than Dickens’ characters – and the ingenious way Wanzie’s performers manage to crank up the comedy as successfully as the imitations.
Miss Sammy, for example, does a great impersonation of both Cher and Lucille Ball – quite an accomplishment considering the huge differences between those two performers, while Gidget Galore does a side-splitting version of Liza aiming for pathos as she goes for the most heartstring-tugging Tiny Tim ever.
Ba’aser has his own scene-stealing moments as both a campy Rip Taylor and, even more hilariously, Marlee Matlin. Watch Ba’aser doing Matlin as she, too, attempts grand pathos — in this case, with over-the-top sign language and gestures, not to mention overheated facial expressions — and you’ll understand what great visual comedy is all about.
If there’s one major disappointment in this production, it’s that this will be the last one. Wanzie announced on Nov. 12 that this would be “The 4th (and final) annual presentation” of this holiday show, as the playwright prepares to move on to something else.
The desire to tackle new challenges is understandable, but as this latest revival of “Wanzie’s Glittering Star-Studded A Christmas Carol” so richly demonstrates, it was a funny idea to begin with, beautifully executed by comedians who know exactly what they’re doing, and do it so very well.
The Footlight Theatre is at the Parliament House Resort at 410 N. Orange Blossom Trail in downtown Orlando, and the show runs Saturdays on Dec. 8, 15 and 22 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets are $16 with advance reservations, which can be made by calling 407-540-0317 or logging on to Wanzie.com or $20 at the door, if available.
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