Three minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam (located 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles) burst catastrophically, resulting in a flood which took over 600 lives. The dam had been the brainchild of William Mulholland (of Mulholland Drive fame), who masterminded the 233-mile Los Angeles Aqueduct to transport water south from the Owens Valley in Central California and helped to transform Los Angeles from a chaparral-covered desert to the city we know today.

Hardly the stuff of a musical comedy, much less that of a Christmastime musical entitled A Mulholland Christmas Carol. Right?


A Mulholland Christmas Carol is back in Los Angeles, where it has been an annual treat since 2002 (minus last year’s hiatus), and quite a treat it is!

Not a particularly Christmassy one, though.  Dickens’ classic tale serves mainly as a framework for an uproarious, outrageous musical (written by Bill Robens and directed, marvelously, by Kiff Scholl) which rivals Urinetown for originality, musicality, and finding laughter and melody from the darkest and most unlikely of sources.  

The show opens with “Mulholland’s Theme,” the ballad of “a man who knew no fear,” a man who (like Ebenezer Scrooge) is accosted on the day before Christmas by a pair of overly cheery charity workers.  The workers ask Mulholland if it would be possible to let some water out of the reservoir so that farmers in the now bone-dry Owens Valley might water their crops.  After all, they remind Mulholland (Michael Oosterom), it is Christmas.

“Christmas?  Bullshit!” replies Mulholland, making Scrooge’s “Humbug!” seem tame by comparison.

“Christmas, a bullshit, sir?” respond the incredulous charity workers in their posh British accents, one of A Mulholland Christmas Carol’s most delicious conceits.  “What about the poor farmers?”

“Let them move to Barstow,” declares Mulholland, to which the workers can only gasp, “They can’t go there. They would rather die!”

Upon his return home, Mulholland is greeted by the ghost of his former partner Frederick Eaton (Marz Richards), wearing (you guessed it!) the chains he forged in life. “Water business?” he exclaims. “Mankind was my business,” and gives Mulholland the bad news. He will be visited by three ghosts.  (Apparently Mulholland has never read A Christmas Carol, because this news comes as quite a shock.)

First to arrive is (you guessed it again!) the Ghost Of Christmas Past, in this case Grand Canyon explorer John Wesley Powell (Justin Brinsfield), wearing a Union cap and sporting only part of his right arm, the rest having been lost in a Civil War battle.  (That he uses this arm to gesticulate and tells Mulholland to “touch my nub” before heading out on a tour of William’s past is but one example of A Mulholland Christmas Carol’s decidedly irreverent and oh-so-politically incorrect humor.)

Mulholland is soon surprised to find himself looking at a younger, handsomer version of himself (Stephen Simon), and because Simon towers over Oosterom, exclaims, “I was taller then!”

Young William sings “L.A. River,” a heartfelt tribute to the crystal waters of said river, then meets three drunken, lascivious, tone-deaf society matrons (Aileen-Marie Scott, Gina Torrecilla, and Kirsten Vangsness) who belt out the bluesy “All Dams Leak.”

To the strains of “Besame Mucho,” young William next encounters a sexy Latin spitfire (Hiwa Bourne) asking for water (and a bit of cuchi-cuchi).  The sizzling señorita plants an idea into Mulholland’s head.  He will make the water from the valley flow south to Los Angeles!  (By the way, no one seems to be able to decide on how to pronounce the city’s name.  Is it “Los Angle-is,” “Los An-geleeze,” or “Los Ong-hey-less?”)

Lilly, William’s big-bustled ice-skating sweetheart (assistant director Alina Phelan) soon makes her first appearance, followed by Lois (Lucy Griffin), a hard-bitten reporter, not long after which Mulholland is warned by L.A. Mayor Eaton that since “white people are arriving and they like to bathe,” they had better find a source of water.  Eaton then tells Mulholland of the Owens Valley, and though unsuspecting valley residents are singing “Our Owens Valley Song” (“We live in the Owens Valley. Tell me what could ever go wrong.”), settlers with water diversion on their minds are moving into L.A. and the San Fernando Valley for a “Land Grab,” the lively, syncopated Act 1 finale. 

Act 2 musical highlights include “Hail The Water,” a operatic tribute to aqua sung by the vocally endowed Alyssa Preston and hilariously signed by a pulchritudinous Indian squaw and “Bully,” sung by Teddy Roosevelt aka The Ghost Of Christmas Present (Robens). Meanwhile, though the poor destitute Owens Valley residents are left with only borax to eat, they nonetheless sing and dance because (musical cue) “It’s Christmas Time.” 

Jaime Robledo gets the evening’s biggest laughs as Tiny Tim—strike that—as Poquito Pablito, the “dear sweet” adopted son of Mulholland’s clerk (pronounced British-style as “clark”), Robledo’s head poking out as Pablito’s miniature body (crutch and all) sits atop his father’s shoulder. (Pablito’s family is so poor that they can only afford to toast with shot-glass sized cups of water.)

Later, Pablito checks out the St. Francis Dam (“Look at all the tiny cracks!”), leading into “This Fine Dam,” an ensemble song-and-dance number (great choreography by Lindsay Martin and vocal harmonies by Mulholland songwriter Bill Newlin) in which the town residents wax proud over the “orphanage and animal shelter right here at the foot of this indestructible dam.” (These are folks who would have sung equally enthusiastically about the “unsinkable” Titanic.)

Finally, as in Dickens’ original, Mulholland is given a second chance at doing it right!

A Mulholland Christmas Carol’s sensational weak-link-free cast is completed by Zachary Barton, Megan Crockett, Welton Thomas Pitchford, Matthew Valle, and Dan Wiley. Newlin leads the show’s crackerjack band on keyboards, with Lydia Veilleux on violin, Kevin Tiernan on guitar, Richard McElroy on bass and kitchen pipes (no kidding), and Mark Mora on drums.

High marks to the show’s design team—Davis Campbell and Scott Siedman (sets), Matt Richter (lighting), Rob Oriol (sound), and especially Lois Tedrow for the cast’s period costumes.

Though audiences are unlikely to have their Christmas spirit either raised or lowered by A Mulholland Christmas Carol, they are likely to be cheering (and passing on the word about) this outrageously funny Southern California history lesson and musical comedy treat. 

Theatre of Note @ Sacred Fools Theatre, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., Los Angeles. 

–Steven Stanley
November 21, 2008
Note: Photos are from the 2005 production

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