A holiday hoot: Desert Rose brings back ‘Christmas With the Crawfords’

By Bonnie Gilgallon

It’s that time of year again—time, that is, to head to Desert Rose Playhouse and share some holiday cheer with Joan Crawford, her family and a parade of misfit stars who’ve showed up at the wrong address. Yes, Desert Rose has brought back Christmas With the Crawfords for a third year, and it’s as raucous and campy as ever.

As the show opens, Joan (Kam Sisco) is getting ready for a live radio interview with Hedda Hopper (Loren Freeman) to help revive her sagging film career. (The story is based on an actual Christmas Eve interview done in 1949.) Dressed in silk pajamas, Joan nervously flits about her pristine all-white living room, barking orders at her children, Christina (Larry Martin) and Christopher (Christine Tringali-Nunes), as well as Baby Jane Hudson (Loren Freeman), who is now her assistant.

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Joan is desperate for another hit movie, and she’s insulted that she’s been asked to screen-test for the lead in Mildred Pierce. A lot is riding on this evening. In addition to the radio interview, Jack Warner is scheduled to stop by later for some shop talk.

The children obediently follow Crawford’s orders, though Christina’s smoldering resentment toward her controlling mother is apparent. There is no love lost between Joan and Baby Jane Hudson (a fictional character famously played by Bette DavIs), either.

Shortly after the radio broadcast begins, surprise guests begin arriving. They’ve been invited to a big holiday bash at Gary Cooper’s house next door, but have showed up at the wrong address. Joan is both annoyed at the disruptions to her big interview, and miffed that she did not receive her own invitation the Cooper party.

Ben Reece’s Katharine Hepburn is spot-on. He’s got the quivery voice and head tremors down pat. Reece is equally hilarious when he shows up later as Carmen Miranda—complete with a large fruit basket on his head.

One of the show’s many musical highlights is “Hanukkah in Santa Monica” performed by the Andrews Sisters (Robbie Wayne, James Owens and Art Healey). Healey actually plays three roles in this production. His butch version of “Santa Baby” as Mae West and his appearance as Ethel Merman are both a hoot. Owens stands out in his other role as Gloria Swanson. His bug-eyed, far-off stare is perfect.

The always-fabulous Loren Freeman shines as both the all-business Hedda Hopper, who’s trying to keep her interview with Joan on track, and the openly hostile Baby Jane Hudson, dressed in a frilly pink and white get-up with blonde pigtails. Freeman’s Hudson matches Sisco’s Crawford insult for insult—and he’s hilarious.

Larry Martin knocks it out of the park as young Christina Crawford. Behind her phony smile and the required, “Yes, Mommy Dearest,” replies, you can tell she’d really like to throttle her mother. Christine Tringali-Nunes is equally as good as younger brother Christopher. She’s adorable in her boy-cut wig and red plaid shorts, smiling vacantly and joining her sister in “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”

The cast is phenomenal across the board. Each actor gives their all—and they’re obviously having fun onstage, which makes the evening richer for the audience.

The two standouts, however, are Kam Sisco as Joan and Robbie Wayne as Judy Garland. Sisco owns the role of Joan Crawford. Tall and imposing while wearing an over-the-top wig, a glittery gown and bright red lipstick, he embodies Crawford’s need for power and ego-stroking, as well as her cruel streak.

Wayne never disappoints onstage. He has the audience howling from the second he enters as Judy Garland. Clad in her signature black-sequined tuxedo jacket, dance pants and heels, Wayne nails her body movements and the lip quivering. His version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is both poignant and hilarious. It’s always challenging when an actor directs a show in which he is also starring—but Sisco pulls it off here.

Just as in the 2019 production of Christmas With the Crawfords, the set is stunning, as is the holiday décor throughout the theater, which has moved from Rancho Mirage to the former Zelda’s building in downtown Palm Springs since the last Christmas With the Crawfords. Costumes, wigs and makeup are crucial in a production like this, and they are superb. 

While I would have preferred a faster blackout at the end of the show—it would pack a bit more punch—that’s a minor critique. If you’re looking for a way to get yourself into the holiday spirit, or you just want a few laughs, go see Christmas With the Crawfords at Desert Rose Playhouse. You will have a ball.

More information: Christmas With the Crawfords will be performed at 7 PM Thursdays, 8 PM Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 PM Sundays through Sunday, Dec. 26 (no shows on Dec. 25), at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 611 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Suite 16. Tickets are $34-$37; high-top tables (for four) or VIP couches (for two or three) are $175. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination is required for entry. For tickets or more information, visit desertroseplayhouse.org.

Bonnie Gilgallon has been a theater reviewer for the Coachella Valley Independent since 2013.

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