Dallas — The holiday season brings many traditions and tropes out to attract and entertain audiences. We see so many different takes on The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol that it’s tough to be compelled to see them every year. So, what a delight it was to hear that Uptown Players had commissioned B.J. Cleveland to write and direct A Very Judy Christmas. He’s a major star on the local theater scene, but the even bigger draw is Janelle Lutz returning to the role of Judy Garland—having played her in The Boy from Oz and End of the Rainbow, both at Uptown, and in cabaret performances. She not only has Judy’s vocal stylings mastered, but her mannerisms and speech patterns as well.
Lutz opening the show with a lovely “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” anchors the play and is worth the price of admission alone. There are plenty more reasons not to miss it—but because the show is new and the producers want to keep the surprises, well, a surprise, you’ll just have to trust us.
In this world premiere production at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, Cleveland has placed this show on the set of The Judy Garland Christmas Show, a 1963 TV special. Yet in this production Judy, Liza and the kids live in this house with a live studio audience, an orchestra and an open bar. It is a fun conceit that puts the audience in a festive spirit and allows the hilarious action to ensue.
What we get over the next two hours is a parade of celebrities and friends who pop by for a tune or two, some gentle and often hilarious ribbing, and of course some hooch. To divulge the songs would give away the guests, but you’ll know most of the tunes, as well as a few not-as-famous numbers like Meredith Willson’s “Pine Cones and Holly Berries.” Uptown’s ensemble excels in these roles.
It’s not giving anything away to divulge that the teenage Liza Minnelli is part of the fun, played by the charming Sarah Elizabeth Price (Lutz and Price played Judy and Liza in The Boy from Oz). Liza’s dating preferences and Judy’s affinity to gay men are recurring motifs in the show’s humor. They duet on the “Happy Days/Get Happy” arrangement that was made famous on the Judy Garland show and was originally performed by Judy and Barbra Streisand. The vocal harmonies of Lutz and Prize go together like a nice whiskey and eggnog.
Before we know it, the show is over and the guests are gone. Judy is home alone and has had one too many shots, and takes some pills. This combination leads to the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Future—a major surprise that you’ll have to see to believe.
The musical arrangements and orchestrations are by Adam Wright and are inventive and lovely, with a witty take on so many songs you know and love. Musical director Isaac Leaverton leads an eight-piece orchestra, which is on stage behind sliding patio doors. This cast and the musical arrangements of this show cry out for a cast recording—it is certainly one I would add to my collection of Christmas music.
The scenic design by Kevin Brown captures the mid-century modern aesthetic of Judy’s television special and transports it magically to the stage of the Kalita. The costumes by Suzi Cranford and Jessie Chavez fit the period and festive nature of the show beautifully. Jason Lynch makes his Uptown Players debut as lighting designer and his work plays a major part in transporting the audience to a TV wonderland where his colorful design adds sparkle and polish to a top-notch production.
Cleveland has directed and written a Christmas show that is very much for adults, but is a love to all kinds of families, relationships, and the holidays. While it is clearly from a campy perspective, its warmth, charm and wit will be a hit with audiences looking for a holiday glow.