I’ll make a prediction.  Scrooge In Rouge is likely to be the funniest, campiest, most delightful, most all-around entertaining Christmas show you’ll be seeing this holiday season.

Though Scrooge In Rouge is the Christmas offering of San Diego’s Diversionary Theatre, the nation’s 3rd oldest LGBT theater, the production is sure to have audiences of any sexual orientation rolling in the aisles. What’s gay about this surprisingly faithful adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is its sensibility, not its subject matter, which makes it not only a great holiday choice for the Diversionary’s core audience but a likely candidate for crossover success as well.

The concept is a simple but outrageous one.  Seventeen of the twenty actors performing in a late 19th Century London music hall production of A Christmas Carol have been felled by food poisoning, leaving the remaining three to “go on with the show” and play every character in the Dickens classic.

In the role of Scrooge is London’s “premier male impersonator,” Miss Vesta Virile, and since Scrooge is onstage throughout virtually the entire show, this leaves the remaining dozen or two other characters to be performed by Charlie Schmaltz and Lottie Obbligato, in for the rollercoaster ride of their theatrical lives.

Helming Scrooge In Rouge is director/musical director Rayme Sciaroni, who keeps the pace fast and guides his cast to absolutely splendiferous performances.  Kim Strassburger is entirely believable as Vesta, a character based on the real life Vesta Tilley, the most famous and well-paid music hall male impersonator of her day.  Strassburger has Scrooge’s manly mannerisms down so pat that one forgets that the role is being played by a woman. Eric Vest is an absolute delight as Schmaltz, who plays most of the other male roles, but gets to try on female drag from time to time.  Best of all is adorable Tony Houck (Lottie), giving one of the most memorable musical theater performances of the year, a real life man playing a woman playing not only most of the women’s roles, but also (and here the show gets very Victor Victoria), in several instances a real life man playing a woman playing a man. The mind boggles.

Charlie Schmaltz gets these plum roles:
•Scrooge’s nephew Freddy, a vision in leprechaun green 
•Bob Cratchitt, Scrooge’s overworked and underpaid clerk
•Jacob Marley’s ghost, all in gray from his long hair to the chains which “came with the costume”
•The Ghost of Christmas Past, looking like Marie Antoinette crossed with Dame Edna, prompting a castmate to exclaim “Good God, Charlie.  You make an ugly woman!” 
•Mrs. Fezziwig, sporting a virtual explosion of frizzy red hair
•The Ghost Of Christmas Present (“They call me Oscar cause I’m wild”)  in black leotard, lavender coat and color-coordinated pageboy. “Straight from Paris,” he tells Scrooge, to which the incredulous old grouch replies “Straight???”

Lottie Obbligato gets to play the following:
•Charity worker Old Mrs. Piles, who asks not so innocently “D’ya like me muff?”  (She’s got her hands in one to stay warm in London’s winter cold
•Scrooge’s sister Fanny, in yellow curls a la Mary Pickford holding (and tossing about) a Cabbage Patch baby Freddy
•Mr. Fezziwig, a red-headed Harpo Marx.  Lottie’s explanation for playing a male role? “I’ve had a lot of experience doing men”
•Alice, Scrooge’s penniless girlfriend
•Mrs. Cratchet—pregnant with a baby at each breast
•Freddy’s wife, all sweetnes in pink and white lace

Scrooge In Rouge’s book and lyrics are by Ricky Graham (who originated the role of Charlie last year in New Orleans), with additional material by Jeffrey Roberson (the original Lottie) and “other interesting bits by Yvette Hargis” (the original Vesta). The show’s many one-liners are a scrumptious mix of the corny and the risqué.  Here are but a few gems:
•“Scrooge was so mean, he sent out Mothers Day cards to orphans.”
•“Calling him stupid would be an insult to stupid people.”
•“Walk this way. (beat) I know the joke’s old but (to the audience) so are you.”
•“Are you a goiter cause you’re a pain in the neck?” 
•”Won’t you reach into your trousers and show me how endowed you are?”
•“They’re so poor, they have to put free samples on layaway.”

Two of Scrooge In Rouge’s most hilarious scenes come directly from the play’s central conceit. At one point, all three actors find themselves on stage and realize that they need a Tiny Tim. “Oh shit!” one of them declares. “There’s no one here to play the little bugger.” The only solution is to look for “a latent thezbian” among the audience members.  (One of them is ruled out because, states Lottie, “I know him and he is not tiny!”) Later, both Charlie and Lottie show up dressed as housekeeper Mrs. Dilber and as neither is willing to let the other one have the role, both remain on stage and perform the part in unison.

The songs, with lyrics by Graham and music by Jefferson Turner, are an infectious bunch of music hall gems, with a completely “off topic” Act 2 opening seaside number included because what’s a music hall show without a trip to the seaside?   All three performers acquit themselves smashingly as vocalists, with a special tip of the hat to Houck’s spot-on mezzo soprano. (At one point, the actor holds a high note longer than one would imagine humanly possible.) Providing marvelous onstage musical accompaniment as Alfred De Capo is Rick Shaffer on piano.

Almost as much the stars of Scrooge In Rouge as the onstage performers are its costumes (by Jennifer Brawn Gittings) and wigs (by Peter Herman), a triumph of imagination in holiday reds and greens.  Extra snaps to the evening’s standout wig, a Phyllis Diller do topped with a colorfully lit Christmas tree.  Bret Young’s set design puts the audience in a music hall mood from the get go, and the uncredited sound design is a riot, with Queen Victoria’s voice giving the opening announcements, and some deliberately missed cues, as when “a terrible bang” comes out a whinny, leading to Lottie’s “ad lib,” “Sorry, I’m a little hoarse.” Jason Bieber’s lighting is a winner, too, with its numerous multi-coloredspecial effects. Backstage credit is also due to Tom Zohar and Chris Martin for assisting Vest and Houck with their dozens of costume and wig changes and to stage manager Gwen Fish for everything else unseen by the audience.

Once again, with Scrooge In Rouge, Diversionary Theatre proves itself quite possibly the best reason for an Angelino to head down San Diego way, and San Diegans are truly blessed to have this holiday gem in their midst. I’d wager that for many down south, a single visit to this London musical hall will hardly be enough.  See Scrooge In Rouge soon, so that you’ll still have time to schedule a return visit.

Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd., San Diego.

–Steven Stanley
November 23, 2008
                                                         Photos: Ken Jacques

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