note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi
Mildred Deerce … Charles Fineran
Veda Deerce … Ryan Landry
Kaye Deerce … Haylee Shrimpton
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer … Scott Martino
Santa Claus … Keith Orr
Molosandra … Afrodite
Batgirl … Batgirl (like, who else?)
Detective … P. J. McWhiskers
Mrs. Keebler … James P. Byrne
Miriam … Winthrop Booth
Elves; Reindeer; Others … Mata Hari; Joey
The Ice Queen … ???
Thundering, melodramatic music is heard as the houselights dim. Red curtains part to reveal snow falling against a dark backdrop. Gunshots ring out. Enter Santa Claus, mortally wounded. He collapses to his knees, utters one word --- “Mildred!” --- and pitches face down in the snow. The curtains close on this, the first scene. That one word --- “Mildred!” --- should immediately answer for you the Who, the What, the When and the Where: Ryan Landry and The Gold Dust Orphans in their new production, JOAN CRAWFORD’S CHRISTMAS ON THE POLE, played on weekends until 28 December at Machine in The Ramrod Center for the Performing Arts. If the prospect of attending yet another CHRISTMAS CAROL or NUTCRACKER makes your eyes glaze like a ham, then you should jingle all the way to the Ramrod on Thursday, Friday or Saturday nights, for CHRISTMAS ON THE POLE may prove to be the jolliest show in town this holiday season. If you enjoyed Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman’s parody of yesteryear, then CHRISTMAS ON THE POLE is definitely for you --- and Barbara Stanwyck feels the same way.
As you may have guessed, the Orphans base their show on the 1945 film noir, MILDRED PIERCE, starring Joan Crawford as the self-sacrificing mother who inadvertently turns her eldest daughter into a monster and becomes ensnared in a web of greed, lust and murder. Mr. Landry turns Mildred and her family into reindeer --- the Deerces --- transfers the action to the North Pole, and gives the Zachary Scott character to Santa Claus, now a big business magnate who gets those slugs in his bowl full of jelly. Your enjoyment will be enhanced if you already know MILDRED PIERCE (and what growing boy doesn’t?), if not, Mr. Landry’s faithfulness to the plot will allow you to still follow along.
This is the fifth Orphan show I’ve attended in little over a year, and I am truly amazed at Mr. Landry’s ability to turn out vehicles for his troupe like clockwork (he’s becoming a true Elizabethan) and how, with each show, the Orphans take one step closer into becoming respectable artists. That may not be their intention --- being artists or respectable --- but if Mr. Landry, director James P. Byrne and their clowns continue to be this hilarious, this inventive and this theatrical as they have been with their CAMILLE, SCARRIE and, now, JOAN, I’m afraid they’re destined to have Greatness thrust upon ‘em, but Greatness so far has been slow in coming: the Boston press and the general public, who will swoon over the likes of Dame Edna, continue to leave these Orphans out in the cold. (SCARRIE brought in the college crowd; will they return for JOAN?) If the fear of stepping foot inside the Ramrod keeps them from attending, then it’s the public’s loss and the press’ disgrace --- and Barbara Stanwyck feels the same way.
Charlie Fineran plays Mildred Deerce, nobly suffering in her fur coat and antlers, and she is the best work I have seen from Mr. Fineran thus far the proof of Mr. Landry’s generosity towards his ensemble is that he writes vehicles for others as well as for himself: CAMILLE was his own personal triumph; Penny Champayne was the touching centerpiece of SCARRIE; Mr. Fineran, so often the cherished foil to Mr. Landry’s clowning, comes into his own as Mildred: his makeup and facial expressions uncannily evoke Ms. Crawford’s mannequin hardness, and he is a superb mime, treading the boards in Crawford’s familiar narcissistic trance or gracefully twisting his upper torso away from us so that he may sob daintily on the ground or at the counter. There are no raunchy surprises to shatter Mr. Fineran’s smooth illusion; instead, Mr. Fineran offers us shading, inflection and characterization, and I do hereby dub him “Actor”. A joyous moment: when Mildred is being interrogated for murder, the Detective (played by P. J. McWhiskers done up as Colonel Klink) is talking to a mannequin in a fur coat, its back to us. He seizes the mannequin in a rage, shakes it and tosses it offstage. Seconds later, Mr. Fineran, slightly disheveled, enters to take his place on the stand --- in other words, that was supposed to be Mr. Fineran who went flying into the wings. As the audience laughs at the obvious gag, Mr. Fineran pauses, gives a gently condescending smile and winks a la Brigette Helm as the Robot in METROPOLIS, letting us know that he knows that we know ‘twas a gag --- and doubles the laughter.
Compared to Mr. Fineran’s achievement, Mr. Landry’s six-foot-plus Veda is mere comic book, but, then, the girl is a one-note bitch from beginning to end, anyway; to compensate, Mr. Landry has treated himself (and us) to new lyrics set to a pop hit of 1984 which he performs with his patented blend of guile and knowing innocence. As Molosandra, the Caribbean witch/restaurateur who goes into the toy-making business with Mildred, Afrodite is a commanding presence in the Jessye Norman mould (she summons her gods by singing Minnie Riperton’s high notes from “Loving You”), and Mr. Landry has smiled on bit player Keith Orr, giving him the beefy (!) role of Santa Claus --- if you’ve ever thought about Santa in an Italian T-shirt, lying on rumpled sheets, look no further. Every Orphan show has new faces popping up in them; here, Winthrop Booth, thin as a pike and just as sharp, makes a droll debut as several characters, especially showbiz has-been Mildred, sporting the only white nose in the evening’s entertainment. Haylee Shrimpton, who plays good daughter Kaye, is fast outgrowing her Child Actress status; should she choose to stay on, she could develop into the troupe’s ingenue, similar to the elegant women of the commedia dell’arte troupes of the 1600s --- I can picture Ms. Shrimpton, years from now, as a famous stage actress writing her memoirs, entitled “Raised by Orphans”, in which she would reflect, “I learned more about theatre performing with Ryan, Jim, Charlie and the Orphans than I would have studying at the Actors Studio. Instead of pretending to be a tree, I learned how to make an Entrance. Instead of delving into my childhood for emotional truth, I learned how to wear make-up, wigs and fashions in character. Instead of waiting for Inspiration to strike, I learned through trial and error what worked and what didn’t. I learned how to capture an audience’s heart within seconds and --- an even harder lesson --- to learn that such love rarely goes past curtain calls. I learned the joy of being an actor and the magic of stagecraft, for that is what an audience wants and needs: joy and magic. And if the Orphans gave birth to a turkey, I learned how to shrug, for there would already be a new show baking in the oven.”
And finally, there is the production’s Ice Queen. This Mysterious Lady appears out of nowhere to do a rendition of “Jingle Bells” that has got to be the single most hilarious turn I have seen this year --- truly. When she performs, the stage, the town, the world is hers. But don’t take my word for it --- go to the Ramrod and see for yourself. You’ll have a gay old time.
And Barbara Stanwyck feels the same way.