Though it’s now too late for L.A. theatergoers to catch this holiday season’s return engagement of Joe Marshall’s The Gayest Christmas Pageant Ever!, this reviewer did manage to squeeze in the final performance of this hilarious (and much improved for 2012) December gem.

563837_10152025832195476_624996282_n Marshall’s outrageous—and outrageously funny—script focuses on theatrical and real-life partners Rod (Adam Loyd) and Manny (Ryland Dodge), 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 (Bri Giger), 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), 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 costume designer named Tarquin (Josh Payne), an easily excitable stage manager (Emily Rutan as Janet), a number of talent-challenged auditioners, and a gay Latino Jesus—sorry, make that Jesús (Geo Santini), and you’ve got as wild and wacky a bunch as you’re ever likely to see.

103326 And did I mention that we also get to see the gay train wreck that is the gayest Nativity Pageant ever?

If The Gayest Christmas Pageant Ever! proves considerably more successful this time round, credit is shared by director Paul Storiale (who’s kept the tone wildly screwball, the pace lickety-split, and the scene-change blackouts as brief and few as possible) and this year’s terrific cast, most of whom are new to the project.

Loyd and Dodge are not only refreshingly believable as a same-sex couple, Loyd is precisely the fabulously grown-up version of Glee’s Kurt Hummel whom this reviewer wished for last year and Outstanding Ensemble Scenie-winner Dodge is equally fabulous as the relatively calmer of the two professional (and life) partners.

Returning cast members are even better this year, from Patton’s delightfully stoned (yet secretly smart) Jim, to Lockhart’s wacky ephitet-spewing narcoleptic hot mess of a Monica, to Santini’s utterly adorable Jesús (who this time round gets a spanglier costume befitting his fabulousness), to Eljaye Montenegro, graduating to the role of Tyrone and making him every bit as huggable as he is tough.

A number of newcomers stand out in the cast of eighteen. Isaac Deakyne shows off tiptop comedic chops as Rod and Manny’s friend Don, who does his best throughout to balance the insanity around him. Payne has an rib-ticklingly flaming turn as swishy Tarquin and makes a welcomely shirtless return as Bethlehem’s hunkiest shepherd. A bubbly Rutan makes Janet the girl you wish were living next door, and Giger gives Margie a just-right balance between outraged and incredulous.

Loyd, Patton, and Rutan deserve bonus points for managing to make The Gayest Christmas Pageant Ever’s  improbably serious turn—Rod’s passionate defense of gay theater and Jim’s improbably erudite straight-man’s explanation of the need for marriage equality—work as well as it does.

An uproarious montage of disastrous auditions show off the comedic gifts of Erica Edd (as would-be “actress” Tina and a TV reporter), Montenegro, and Wise Man understudy Tony Candelaria. Best of all is Drew Miller’s Spike AKA Fromage, performing a monolog “from the NBC daytime drama Days Of Our Lives” that gives new meaning to words screamingly funny.

Matt Hudacs not only brings angry, edgy goth playwright M&M to amusing life, but joins Edd, Montenegro, and Giger in a side-splitting series of flashbacked parental reactions to the words, “Guess what. I’m gay!” (Hudacs later joins Payne as a pair of bare-torsoed Brokeback Mountain shepherds.)

Bri Azmoudeh milks her every flatulent moment as piano accompanist Martha, her simulated tickling of the ivories (even hands-free) only one of the reasons to stay inside the theater during intermission. Matthew Clay is a very funny Puppet Santa, with Maikiko James (as a truculent Angel) and Victor Mark Brown (as  Nativity-narrating Ted The Plumber) completing the ensemble mix.

Storiale has designed the production’s very rudimentary set and lighting, precisely what you might expect at Rod and Manny’s ultra bare-bones theater. Tara Rispin’s costumes are character-appropriate (and often a hoot to behold).

Director Storiale has been assisted this year by Bree Pavey. Corey Price once again deserves applause for his work up in the sound and lighting booth. Candelaria is stage manager.

The Gayest Christmas Pageant Ever! is produced by Paranoia Entertainment and Fulton Entertainment.

Though it’s now too late to catch this year’s edition of The Gayest Christmas Pageant Ever, audience and critical response to this must-improved Version 2.0 suggest that Storiale and company might want to make Marshall’s comedy a yearly North Hollywood tradition. Holiday theatergoers would be hard-pressed to find a funnier show with which to bring in 2013.

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

–Steven Stanley
December 30, 2012

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