A has-been’s holiday: Brüka Theatre’s ‘Christmas With the Crawfords’

If you’ve had more sappy sweetness than you can swallow from the standard entertainment on offer this time of year, Brüka Theatre’s got you. Its latest production, Christmas With the Crawfords, running Wednesdays through Sundays until Dec. 22, is a campy, outrageous mashup of a holiday musical with an edge … and utterly sugar-free.

Created by Richard Winchester and written by Mark Sargent, Christmas With the Crawfords revolves around Joan Crawford, the beloved actress of Hollywood’s Golden Age—and famously terrible mother—who in the late 1940s was labeled “box office poison” (true story) and forced to resign from MGM Studios (also true). The icing on the cake? Crawford was asked to do a screen test for the role of Mildred Pierce—deeply insulting for a star of her caliber. Nonetheless, gossip columnist and radio personality Hedda Hopper famously advocated for Joan. 

Winchester and Sargent used this collection of facts to deliver an outlandish comedy musical, performed by actors in drag, that takes audiences on a wild 90-minute ride.

Our show begins on Christmas Eve at the Brentwood mansion where Joan Crawford (played by Bradford Ka’ai’ai) and her adopted children live. Hopper (Stephen Moore) has graciously agreed to host one of her famous “at home with the stars for Christmas” live radio broadcasts at the Crawfords’ home to help Joan reboot her flailing career. But from the start, the effort seems doomed. First, there’s “Baby” Jane Hudson (Kaymin Sambrano), who now works as Joan’s alcohol-soaked assistant and has no compunction about airing her boss’ dirty laundry.

Of course, then there are Joan’s adopted children: Christina (Riley McKinney) and Christopher (Jessey Richards), who alternately taunt and kiss up to their cruel, abusive mother. As the hour of Hedda’s arrival and the radio broadcast draws near, Joan is desperate to create the illusion that hers is the perfect family, but it seems the harder she tries, the worse things look for her.

Compounding the problem is the incessant knocking on the door from a procession of Hollywood stars on their way to the Christmas party next door at Gary Cooper’s house who all have gotten their directions mixed up. The likes of Judy Garland (Kelsey Mato), silent-film star Gloria Swanson (Kell Kittell), Katharine Hepburn (Brian Hanson), Mae West (John Paul Rivard), Carmen Miranda (John Wade) and more arrive by turns to discover that they’ve arrived at the wrong house—but are diverted in their plans when they realize Miss Hopper’s show is conveniently taking place.

Joan can’t seem to get a word in edgewise as each star hogs the microphone to belt out a holiday performance, and her kids intermittently pipe up with horrifying tidbits about life at Mommie Dearest’s house. Not to mention the annoying fact that she herself didn’t even receive an invite to her neighbor Cooper’s house.

Each musical performance is laden with hyperboles, double entendres and cleverly cloaked barbs, made even funnier by the actors in drag who manage to turn these beloved stars of a bygone era into wonderfully weird, unseemly relics with bizarre tendencies. 

The ensemble is across the board delightful, though there are standouts. Ka’ai’ai, a local theater instructor and longtime performer in the Reno area, is both funny and deliciously wicked as the diva Joan herself. His gift for physical comedy is seen in even the simplest gestures—he makes even the occasional resentful gulp of a drink hilarious. Also notable is Rivard’s portrayal of Mae West, the buxom blonde whose every word fairly drips with inappropriate sexuality. Rivard, who recently played Lola in Brüka’s production of Kinky Boots, is an absolute show-stealer with a knockout voice. 

Though it veers a bit dark, this subversive, silly Christmas comedy will keep you laughing all the way … and long after you’ve gotten home, too.

Christmas with the Crawfords will be onstage at Brüka Theatre, 99 N. Virginia St., Reno at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 6-9, 13-16 and 20-22. Sunday matinees will be staged at 2 p.m. on Dec. 10 and 17. Tickets are $35, or $31 for students, seniors and military.