Ebenezer Scrooge is back for another Christmas in San Diego, and should this news provoke a “Seen that, done that” groan from A Christmas Caroled-out holiday theatergoers, let me clarify. The Scrooge in question is the leading lady of Diversionary Theatre’s musical comedy smash Scrooge In Rouge, returning to Diversionary for the first time since its Scenie-winning 2008 debut, once again the holiday season’s campiest, craziest, most laugh-out-loud Christmas show—and not just for LGBT audiences.

DSC_7933_thumb 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.

Directing Scrooge In Rouge with oodles of imagination and panache this time round is its 2008 Scenie-winning star Tony Houck, reprising his tour-de-force performance as “Lotte,” a real-life man playing a man playing a woman playing not only most of the women’s roles A Christmas Carol, but also in several instances a man playing a man playing a woman playing a man.

DSC_8226_thumb Among the roles Houck as Lottie Obbligato brings to life are muff-carrying charity worker Old Mrs. Piles, who asks not so innocently “D’ya like me muff?”; Scrooge’s sister Fanny, sporting Mary Pickford curls and tossing about her Cabbage Patch baby Freddy; Mr. Fezziwig, a red-headed Harpo Marx, a male role entrusted to Lottie because “I’ve had a lot of experience doing men”; Alice, Scrooge’s sweet but penniless girlfriend; Mrs. Cratchet, pregnant with a baby at each breast; and Freddy’s wife, all peaches and cream in pink and white lace.

Joining Houck at his invitation for Scrooge In Rouge 2.0 are two of his costars from last February’s Next Fall, Jacque Wilke and Stewart Calhoun, all three Best Ensemble Scenie members stealing scenes from each other left, right, and center.

Wilke couldn’t make for a more delightfully cute Scrooge, i.e. Scrooge as played by a gender-bending Vesta, a character based on the real life Vesta Tilley, the most famous and well-paid music hall male impersonator of her day. Not only does Wilke have Scrooge’s masculinity down pat, her priceless facial expressions are almost worth the price of admission.

DSC_8356_v2_thumb As for Calhoun, singing for the first time since his 2008 Best Lead Actor Scenie-winning L.A. musical theater debut in Thrill Me, the multitalented young actor has never been more winning as he is here as Schmaltz, who plays most of the supporting male roles, but gets to try on female drag from time to time. There’s Scrooge’s nephew Freddy, a vision in bouffant blond locks and leprechaun green garb; 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 Vesta to exclaim “Good God, Charlie. You make an ugly woman!”; Mrs. Fezziwig, sporting a virtual explosion of frizzy red hair; and The Ghost Of Christmas Present (“They call me Oscar cause I’m wild”) in black leotard, lavender coat and color-coordinated pageboy.

Scrooge In Rouge’s book and lyrics are by Ricky Graham (who originated the role of Charlie in New Orleans in 2007), 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, including gems like “Scrooge was so mean, he sent out Mothers Day cards to orphans,” and “Calling him stupid would be an insult to stupid people,” and “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. Later, both Charlie and Lottie show up dressed as housekeeper Mrs. Dilber and as both are eager to play the role, the two 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” mid-show 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.)

Returning from 2008 to provide 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. David Medina’s scenic, props, and holiday décor transform the Diversionary stage into a festive Christmas music hall. Luke Olson’s vivid lighting makes everything look even more multi-colored holiday gorgeous. Kevin Anthenill’s sound design adds to the gaiety from the get-go, with Queen Victoria giving the opening announcements. Backstage credit is also due to dressers Amy Anthenill and Kayla Octaviano for assisting Houck and Calhoun with their dozens of costume and wig changes and to stage manager Ryan Heath for everything else unseen by the audience.

Scrooge In Rouge 2.0 proves such an all-around delight for audiences of just about every sexual orientation and age—the more risqué material will sail over the heads of the kiddies—that Executive Director John E. Alexander and Producing Director Bret Young might want to consider making this an annual Diversionary holiday event, a wild-and-crazy alternative to The Old Globe’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Only a Grinch could object to bringing back Scrooge In Rouge for more.

Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, San Diego.

Steven Stanley
December 16, 2012
Photos: David Medina

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