Jason Moyer’s fabulous gay adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is back for a return engagement with a new director (Michael A. Shepperd), a slightly tweaked book, a mostly new cast, and a whole new bigger-budgeted look and feel.

For those who missed last December’s World Premiere engagement, Moyer’s adaptation retains the original title and, gratifyingly respectful to Dickens, keeps much of the original’s dialog. However, the Celebration version converts Ebenezer Scrooge to a more contemporary sounding Ben Scrooge, fashion maven and head of “S & M Fashion House” and surrounds him with a bevy of fabulous gay and gay-friendly supporting characters.

Shepperd’s imaginative and often inspired direction is visible from the first scene, a striking new opening in which the Celebration stage becomes Project Runway, the cast sashaying down the catwalk one by one to a dramatic dance club mix of “Carol Of The Bells,” garbed in various shades of black.

Ben Scrooge (once again the sensational Michael Taylor Gray) is as anti-Christmas as Ebenezer ever was, though the original’s “Bah, humbug” has turned into a gayer sounding “Pshaw!”  Fashion-plate Ben is always dressed to the nines, though still in black, and like Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wore Prada, “right away” is never good enough for the bitchy taskmaster, who fires kowtowed employees right and left. He’s quick with the catty insults as well, telling Bobby (Cratchit), “You learned to sew last week as if you were taught by a blind lesbian!”

Speaking of Cratchett (an effective JohnMichael Beck), the browbeaten employee now spends his days beading evening gowns, his near-frozen fingers scarcely able to sew on another sequin thanks to Scrooge’s penny-pinching ways.  Scrooge still has a nephew, Fred (a svelte and dapper Christopher Grant Pearson), who brings presents to Scrooge’s place of business, and invites him for Christmas dinner, but the charity solicitors who ask Scrooge for a Christmas donation have become a pair of gay flamers (the amusing duo of Michael Mullen and Sean Lambert) collecting money for QROTHO (Queers Reaching Out To Help Others). After Scrooge sees Marley’s face in his door knocker (a great effect by scenic designer Mark-Austin Rowell), he blames it on some “undigested bit of beef…or some bad sushi.” Told that he must meet each ghost one by one, Scrooge asks, “Can’t I just take them all at once…like a ghost orgy?”

The marvelous Mullen doubles as Marley, a cross between Oscar Wilde and Cruella de Vil, whose “chains I forged in life” are now long black fabric swatches (one of costume designer Suzanne Scott’s many ingenious creations).  Mullen, playing it straight (no pun intended), is powerful indeed as he expresses Marley’s regrets, direct from Dickens’ original. (As was the case last year, Moyer’s adaptation works because of the respect he pays to his source material.)

The first ghost to appear is of course Christmas Past. Last year she was a Gloria Gaynor-esque drag queen. This Christmas she’s all woman, a divalicious turquoise-gowned Charlene Modeste, melding Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson and backed by girl singers “The Memories” (sassy Joy Sudduth and sultry Lindsay Wray). “Listen, you pathetic, snooty old white man,” she orders the “shriveled-up old fart” of a Scrooge, and segueways into a Destiny’s Child-worthy “Mr. Scrooge, you been one nasty fruitcake,” with funky music by Brian Bugach.

Scrooge revisits his past, seeing himself as a sissy boy (Pearson) whose homophobe of a polyester-wearing father belittled him for liking to draw dresses.  (Only his loving sister (Sudduth) respected young Ben enough to give him a dolly for Christmas.)  Fortunately, teenage Ben Scrooge found true love, not with a girl named Belle, though, but with a handsome lad named Beau (a sweet turn by Vash Boddie).  Back in those “chicken days,” Ben loved the parties thrown by Fezziwig (a flamboyant Michael O’Hara) just as much as Ebenezer did, he and his friends always eager to (in Fezziwig’s words) “Eat, drink, and be a big bunch of Marys!”  Ben recalls how he and Beau used to entertain the guests as drag elves Mary and Carol (short for Mary Christmas and Christmas Carol), lip synching to “Merry Christmas Uncle Ben.” On a more serious note, when Beau breaks up with Ben, telling him that he is no longer the boy Beau fell in love with, Ben’s life having become consumed with selfishness and stinginess, the scene is mostly straight out of Dickens, and moving for that very reason.

Next to appear is The Ghost Of Christmas Present (Boddie again), a slim go-go boy provocatively undressed in a pair of teeny-tiny gold lamé hotpants, a gold spangled cap, go-go boots, a faux fur boa, and golden medallion. Christmas Present takes Ben to visit Bobby’s home, where Tiny Tim has been replaced by Uncle Tim (O’Hara), an older, seriously ill gay man (sans health insurance), which allows Moyer to get serious about issues such as ageism, health care, and HIV.

O’Hara returns in scarier mode as faceless The Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come, veiled and gowned in black, who allows Ben to eavesdrop on the gossipy QROTHO queens, who are getting the latest 411 on Scrooge’s demise on their trendy iPhones.  Meanwhile, Scrooge’s housekeepers (Sudduth and Wray) argue about whether or not to sell the master’s things on Ebay.  A trip to the local graveyard confirms Ben’s suspicions that he has indeed died an untimely and unlamented death, prompting his awakening a new man on Christmas morning. (Could A Christmas Carol end any other way?)

As was the case last year, the show belongs to Gray, fabulously bitchy as the as yet unredeemed Ben Scrooge and boyishly gleeful at his second at life. The supporting cast do mostly fine work in a variety of roles (and wigs).  The character of Uncle Tim remains the play’s weakest element, with the supposedly elderly uncle (O’Hara is a couple decades young for the role) no substitute for a cute and heartstring-tugging child.

In some ways the biggest stars of this year’s A Christmas Carol are its new team of designers.  Rowell’s set (love that pin cushion divan with yard-long pins sticking out its rear) and Scott’s costumes are strikingly black and white at first, adding color bit by bit as Ben begins his travels through time.  Brandon Baruch’s lighting contributes to the production’s snazzy new look as does Efrain Schunior’s sound design, particularly the spooky sound blend whipped up for Scrooge’s journey into the future. 

Whether (Celebration) Christmas Carol newbies or fans from last year’s production, theatergoers LGBT and straight alike are likely to have a gay old time at the newly redesigned house of S & M.

Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
December 4, 2008
Photos:   Efrain Schunior

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