The old adage that “timing is everything” proves doubly true for the Paul Storiale-directed production of Joe Marshall’s The Gayest Christmas Pageant Ever! A not yet fully rehearsed opening weekend was hardly the most propitious time for inviting critics to review its West Coast Premiere, and without sufficient rehearsal, the draggy production I saw two weeks ago lacked (among other things) the razor-sharp timing so essential in a screwball comedy. Fortunately, this reviewer’s schedule has permitted a return visit, and I can happily report that this new, improved The Gayest Christmas Pageant Ever! merits a largely unqualified WOW! What a difference time and timing can make.

As readers of my initial review may recall, Marshall’s script focuses on theatrical and real-life partners Rod (Dennis Delsing) and Manny (Charlie Vaughn), a duo who have produced flop after flop and whose latest, The Gayest Christmas Pageant Ever!, promises to be no more successful, though at least to their credit, not a single bad review has been written over the past four years. Actually, not a single critic has even shown up to review a Rod & Manny Show—but no matter. This time, however, they’ve got successful New York director Margie (E.D. Brown), an old friend of Manny’s who’s agreed to do this as a favor for her buddy. They’ve also got a pot-smoking heterosexual technical director named Jim (Josh Patton this time round), who has taken it upon himself to learn gay slang, with less than fabulous results. Also along for the ride is Jim’s homophobic, racist, Tourettes-plagued, walker-dependant Mom (Debbie Lockhart). Add to this mix a flamboyant bleached blond twink named Tarquin (Matt Wiley), an easily excitable stage manager (Kelly Kemp as Janet), a number of talent-challenged auditioners, and a gay Latino Jesus—sorry, make that Jesús (Geo Santini), and you’ve got a wild and wacky bunch this reviewer appreciated considerably more in his second visit, as he did Marshall’s smart, clever (if still imperfect) script.

An additional weekend of shows and plenty of fine tuning over the past fourteen days have crystallized performances that weren’t quite there yet, and made even better those that already lit up the stage. Timing is indeed everything, and lines are now picked up lickety-split, performers secure enough in their roles that they can now let out their inner fabulousness, and in some cases, let it way out.

Rod’s passionate defense of gay theater seems far less out of place this time round, thanks to a radically improved Delsing and to a stronger lead-up in preceding scenes. Characters that had seemed out of place or extraneous two weeks ago now fit more tightly into the overall weave of the show. Plot points that had been somewhat unclear have become far easier to pick up on. And performances which ranged from okay to excellent now fall mostly into the latter category.

A very strong Justin Stevenson continues to balance the insanity around him with a finely-tuned performance as Rod and Manny’s friend Don. Vaughn’s level-headed Manny is now the fabulous sidekick his already solid performance had hinted at. Patton makes stoner Jim entirely his own in a performance that delights from start to finish, even being saddled with Jim’s suddenly erudite defense of marriage equality. Garrett Braddock continues to make for an appealingly queeny Spike aka Fromage, and the always delightful Kemp gives the charmingly effervescent Janet even more dimensions. Lauren Howard again manages to rise above the hard-of-hearing and fart jokes as accompanist Martha, with extra points for tickling the ivories quite nicely indeed. Lockhart continues to perform physical comedy with Martha’s walker that would do Carol Burnett proud, Sean Cameron Young’s gangsta Tyrone is every bit as rough and real as ever, and an adorable Wiley is even more funny and fabulous as Tarquin (who still deserves twice as much stage time), once again doubling effectively as a markedly different Puppet Santa. Joe Cisternelli and William Cutting score even more laughs as shirtless shepherds in love, with Cutting now giving Goth playwright MnM the more colorful performance he deserves. Santini’s kooky gay Jesús is cuter, quirkier, and funnier than ever. Allyson Mandelbaum (Tina, TV reporter) is now totally terrific as talentless Tina, both in a finer-tuned audition scene and as a Real Housewives-delicious Mary. Jen McGlone (Alex), Eljaye Montenegro (Inn Keeper/Wise Man), and Jeff Ryan (Ted) make considerably stronger impressions than before in minor roles. A much improved Brown now does indeed make us believe that Martha is a successful New York director, playing the part with assurance, panache, and a headband. Finally, Delsing’s Rod has undergone a Christmas-miraculous transformation from drab to fabulous, displaying expert comic timing, many noteworthy comedic touches, and just the right tone in Rod’s “ready for my close-up” serious moment.

Actors’ headshots and bios are now displayed in the lobby as well they should be. (Perhaps next time in the program as well?) Overly-long scene changes have been greatly minimized in length and even it seems in frequency, and the minimalist set design appears to have been refined to the production’s benefit. Bree Pavey’s costume choices continue to be just right for both play and play-within-a-play, and Corey Price once again deserves applause for his work up in the sound and lighting booth.

Finally, having been outside the theater during intermission the first time round, I must confess to having missed the production’s Act Two set-up, one involving the full cast in character, and well worth staying inside the theater for.  Oh, and a terrific sequence in which characters gay and straight flash back to their childhood upbringing deserves here the mention it did not get initially.

The Gayest Christmas Pageant Ever! is produced by Linda Fulton, Pavey, and Storiale.

Not surprisingly, this reviewer was skeptical that a silk purse could be made from the not quite “sow’s ear” I reviewed two weeks ago, but Christmas miracles do indeed happen. I’m delighted to have been able to give The Gayest Christmas Pageant Ever! a second chance. Admittedly, it still ain’t Shakespeare (and never will be), but under Storiale’s incisive direction, it’s now the funniest show in town … and a terrific way to spend an evening in December.

The Avery Schreiber Theatre, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
December 22, 2011

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