By Colin Douglas
David Cerda’s popular, gender-bending Christmas entertainment, Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer, is now in its 20th year.
It’s difficult to believe, but times flies when you’re having fun. Hell in a Handbag’s wild, over-the-top anti-holiday, holiday play with music has turned into a much-awaited annual event, especially with the LGBT community. It’s become a Chicago classic that Cerda updates each year with topical news. This year’s production features several new cast members, some additional music and a wealth of contemporary references.
The show is an updated parody of the popular television cartoon, in a big, glitzy, exciting and titillating extravaganza of holiday fun. While lambasting America’s current preposterous political scene, Cerda’s musical comedy carries the message that being different isn’t a crime. Like the original storybook, published in 1939 by Montgomery Ward, the hit holiday song recorded by Gene Autry and the popular stop-motion animated television special, this tale of Rudolph is a story that celebrates the differences in each of us.
Cerda’s infectious musical offers a similar storyline as the cartoon it’s parodying. Sam the Snowman (played with delightfully droll snarkiness by Matt Sergot) eloquently narrates his recollection of Rudolph, a newborn reindeer at the North Pole, who embarrasses his parents with his preference for feminine clothing and girly interests. When he’s shunned by the other reindeer and called names for being different, Rudolph decides to run away. He’s joined by another former North Pole citizen, an optimistic elf and kindred spirit named Herbie, who would rather be a dentist than one of Santa’s toymakers.
The two outcasts soon make friends with yet another fish out of water, a possibly lesbian prospector named Yukon Cornelia (played with bombastic brashness by Lori Lee). Together they all sail off to the Isle of Misfit Toys where they take on the fearsome, giant, Abominable Drag Beast. Of course, everything turns out happily in the end and everyone becomes accepted and celebrated for who they are and the talents they possess.
In addition to creating the script, which features such inspirational and humorous songs as “Being Normal,” “They’ll Hate You if You’re Different,” “Christmas Makes Me Bitter” and “Just Be Yourself,” Artistic Director Cerda also appears in the play. Co-directed by AJ Wright and Becca Holloway, the current production makes great use of the intimate Mary’s Attic Cabaret space. With an eye for the outlandish, the show also sports fine musical direction by JD Caudill and spirited choreography by Lauren Griffith. The production’s enhanced by Kate Setzer Kamphausen’s colorful costumes, wild wigs and makeup by Keith Ryan and Sydney Genco, respectively, and a compact, festive setting by Roger Wykes. Cat Wilson dazzles the audience with her lighting and Ralph Loza’s sound track adds much to the storytelling.
Graham Heacock heads this year’s cast as the petite, puckish and playful young cross-dressing fawn named Rudolph. A standout performer, Heacock charmed audiences at Theo Ubique in their excellent Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricuse Songbook. With great empathy, this HIAH newcomer makes the role all his own. Standouts in this year’s cast include the always excellent Kristopher Bottrall, who brings dignity and broad humor to his portrayal of Herbie, the Elf.
Also noteworthy are talented Allison Petrillo, debuting at HIAH as Rudolph’s mother, but particularly superb as babydoll belter, Dolly; Sydney Genco, a powerhouse talent, as Santa’s assistant, the leather-clad Elfina; Chicago favorite Tommy Bullington, as a sad, alcoholic Mrs. Claus; captivating Madison Piner as Rudolph’s provocatively punk and pugnacious reindeer girlfriend, Clarice (taking over the role for Christea Parent on opening night); Terry McCarthy as a quirky Kellyanne Conway-inspired Connie Blitzen; Josh Kemper as cocky Coach Comet and, especially, as the outrageous Queen Moon Racer; and Michael Jack Hampton, returning as a smarmy, hot-to-trot, Trumped-up Santa. Kudos to Cerda for his many uproarious portrayals in this year’s production, including the lip-synching Dragbeast, Gloria Allred, Gladys Dasher and, in particular, Santa’s hilarious new trophy wife, Iwanka.
For liberal-minded adult audiences searching for the most irreverent humorous holiday entertainment in town, a show that features a positive message about being accepted for who you are, this is the play to see. A popular Andersonville hit for two decades, Cerda’s campy, highly theatrical parody of that eccentric reindeer with the shiny nose is back again and sparkling even brighter than ever.
Hell in a Handbag Productions presents “Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer” through December 30 at Mary’s Attic, 5400 N. Clark St., Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.