Judy Garland is back in our nation’s consciousness—for the umpteenth time—thanks to Renee Zellweger’s Oscar-worthy performance of the embattled super-diva in Judy. In case you missed Zellweger’s star vehicle in theaters, it’s not too late to still enjoy all things Judy. Late Night Theatre’s infamous troupe of weirdoes is paying homage to the opioid-addled actress. The show, you ask?
Judy Garland’s Pill Poppin’ Christmas. (Because, of course, it is.)
The show features a raucous ensemble cast, but it’s really a chance for actress (and LNT co-founder) Jessica Dressler to embody every nuanced, Quaaluded quirk of Garland’s—and then some. She’s mastered the late actress’s cadence, her tics and that unwavering, flinch-free perma-smile. Oh, and when given the opportunity to belt out a song, Dressler can practically rip the roof right off Missie B’s.
Even though I was sober and paying dutiful attention, the show’s plot—set in 1963—still somehow escaped me. From what I gleaned, Garland is somehow Judy-napped by four teenagers. She then gives a drugged-out, holiday performance which saves a local Podunk TV station from going under on Christmas Eve—or something like that. (I think.) The local teen yokels join in on the fun pretending to be Judy’s superstar friends. The premise is a bit flimsy, but who cares? It’s Late Night Theatre and you’ll probably be half in the bag before the curtain ever goes up. With the script loosely in effect, the characters stay on point throughout—although you have to wonder how much of it improvised on the fly because of missed cues or forgotten lines. Again, who cares? It’s clear the actors are having a gay ol’ time up on stage—and as Dressler casually mentioned the only time she popped out of character—the evening’s performance was being fueled by Fireball shots.
Dressler doesn’t just chew scenery; she swallows it whole—with camp-tastic aplomb. But the rest of the cast is just as much of a delight. They are forever mugging to the audience and milking every zinger for maximum laughs (and playful one-upsmanship). One second Molliann McCulley is running amuck as a pubescent (and vodka-pounding) Liza Minelli, and the next drag maven Loretta Martin is doing her best Barbra Streisand impersonation. (I would watch Martin read off the back of a cereal box. She’s a veteran scene stealer who seems to get just as much of a kick out of the audience as they do of her.)
The songs come fast and furious. Get Happy! The Trolley Song! Consider Yourself! Each tune allowed the tight-knit cast a chance to show off some solo vocal prowess alongside ever-present comedic flair. (Stephonne Singleton deserves an MVP award for toggling between Eartha Kitt, Diana Ross, and Sammy Davis, Jr. in the span of 25 minutes.)
Right before the intermission, Dressler takes it down a notch to give a goose bump-inducing rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow and then in true Judy Garland fashion, she overdoses with hilarious results. Eventually, Garland’s performance saves “KC’s only privately owned, public-access station” and all is right with the world.
As if the show weren’t meta enough, folks in the audience pull double duty as—you guessed it—audience members of the faux TV show. There are singing squirrels, Ron Megee dressed as Elvis singing The Dreidel Song, and at one point the cast uses pill bottles as maracas while Dressler sings her heart out. The wigs, the gender-bending costumes, the kitschy props all get a gold star and deserve equal billing. Speaking of, there are so many costume changes, it worries me how chaotic things must be behind-the-scenes.
If you’re a Mensa member, this irreverent show probably isn’t for you. But if you’re looking for any excuse to bust a gut laughing, sing along to some zany showtunes and watch Dressler’s tour-de-farce performance, you should order your tickets today. Our only complaint? We really should have popped some pills and washed ‘em down with vodka before we arrived. That’s our bad.
Now thru December 23rd
Missie B’s, 805 W. 39th, Kansas City
Starring: Jessica Dressler, Molliann McCulley, Stephonne Singleton, Loretta Martin, and Ron Megee.
Directed by: Ron Megee