Joe Marshall’s The Gayest Christmas Pageant Ever! gets its West Coast Premiere in a production which generates considerable laughs and features a number of enjoyable performances but could benefit from a classier staging than the one now being presented at the Avery Schreiber Theatre under Paul Storiale’s direction.

GayXmasShow101 Theatrical and real-life partners Rod (Dennis Delsing) and Manny (Charlie Vaughn) have produced flop after flop and their 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 round 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 (Seth Allison), 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), 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 that deserve an overall better script than Marshall’s, or at least a more thoroughly professional execution of said script.

That being said, this reviewer laughed loud and often, though a good deal more at the zaniness of Act One than The Gayest Christmas Pageant Ever!’s more problematic second act, which features a pair of deadly serious scenes so out of sync with the rest of the frivolities that a number of audiences members could be heard stifling embarrassed giggles. And while it makes sense to have Manny’s mom spouting her racial and homophobic slurs, since at least she’s got a connection to the cast of characters, a homophobic African American thug seems to have wandered in from another show, and a few of the smaller roles are underdeveloped or just plain extraneous, leaving this reviewer to wonder if playwright Marshall inadvertently forgot to throw in a gay kitchen sink.

Among the large cast of nineteen, Justin Stevenson balances the insanity around him with a finely tuned performance as Rod and Manny’s friend Don, and the same can be said for Vaughn’s level-headed Manny. Allison makes for a very funny stoner, Garrett Braddock an appealingly queeny Spike aka Fromage, and Kemp a charmingly effervescent Janet. Lauren Howard 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 performs physical comedy with Martha’s walker that would do Carol Burnett proud, Sean Cameron Young’s gangsta Tyrone is rough and real, and Wiley is simply fabulous as Tarquin (who deserves twice as much stage time), and doubles amusingly as a puppet Santa. Joe Cisternelli and William Cutting score laughs as shirtless shepherds in love, though Cutting could do more to develop the role of Goth playwright MnM. Santini’s kooky gay Jesús made me laugh again and again. Allyson Mandelbaum (Tina, TV reporter) has some terrific moments as talentless Tina, but Tina’s audition monolog is too over-too-the top even for The Gayest Christmas Pageant Ever!. Jen McGlone (Alex), Eljaye Montenegro (Inn Keeper/Wise Man), and Jeff Ryan (Ted) all have their good moments as well. On the other hand, Brown could do more to make us believe that Martha is indeed a successful New York director, and a less unkempt look would serve the character better. Most problematic of the bunch is Delsing’s low-key work in the pivotal role of Rod, who ought to be played fabulous à la Modern Family’s Cameron or an older version of Glee’s Kurt Hummell, but comes across just as easily straight as gay, and bland to boot. When Rod’s “big dramatic moment” comes, Delsing plays it as if Rod were a character in an Ibsen tragedy, thereby generating those audience titters. Sadly, none of these actors has been given even the shortest of bios in the one-sheet program, nor are their headshots displayed in the lobby.

Though Rod’s The Gayest Christmas Ever! may well be bad theater at its worst, Marshall’s The Gayest Christmas Ever! deserves a more polished staging than the one now at the Avery Schreiber. The set design consists of big pieces of furniture lugged on and offstage as the audience is plunged into pitch blackness far too often and for far too long, and the lighting design does no more than light the stage. Also, I hope never again to witness chairs being brought into a theater and late arrivals seated in front of front-row audience members nearly ten minutes after a show has begun. (Since this happened at 8:10, a time when pre-show announcements normally get made in L.A., the need to await latecomers ought probably to have outweighed the need for an on-time start.) On a more positive note, Bree Pavey’s costume choices are just right for both play and play-within-a-play, and Corey Price deserves applause for his work up in the sound and lighting booth.

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

Ultimately, despite many terrific performances and a number of outrageously funny moments, The Gayest Christmas Ever! could benefit from a more cohesive, professional staging than its West Coast Premiere delivers.

The Avery Schreiber Theatre, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Through December 30. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 on December 16 and 17. Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 on December 22, 23, 29, and 30. Reservations: 818 766-9100

–Steven Stanley
December 10, 2011