Not since our own Bayou City bodacious Botticelli beauty, Tamarie Cooper, sat and spun on her Sit 'n Spin in the fifth installment, I believe, of her original musical comedy summer extravaganzas once called Tamalalia has there been such a consistently hilarious show as her latest psychedelic voyage into the absurd, A Very Tamarie Christmas.
What used to be Cooper looking back at her life with gimlet eyes, and therefore making us see ourselves with equal magnanimity and sheepish squirm, has morphed over the years into a cult theatrical Ziegfeld Follies of her twisted psyche. What a mind!
In no particular order, there have been dancing cupcakes and cockroaches to signal the end of days in Doomsday Revue; a singing Incontinence in Old as Hell; snooty France, belligerent Germany and wily China berating sad America in United States of Tamarie; or a rogue's gallery of drugs Adrenalin and Dopamine in Journey to the Center of My Brain (In 3-D). All her musical revues have an original score and book; spirited choreography by Cooper that always includes a tap routine; and outlandish costumes (that in the past have depicted bacon, a Satan whose Hell depends on unflattering lighting, and more than a few moronic Hitlers), and they co-star the loonies from Catastrophic Theatre, who are let loose to wreak havoc and elicit genuine guffaws from the audience. There are no subtle performances in a Tamarie Cooper show. There's nothing subtle at all in a Tamarie show. That's what makes these annual productions so eagerly awaited and lapped up.
Christmas is all this times ten. It has the whacked-out charm, frizzed ends and theatrical pizzazz of the series, but this time the production also has a genuinely cohesive book and genial guiding spirit, however skewed, from Patrick Reynolds, that holds the whole thing together. Some of the previous shows wildly veered off into the stratosphere before they could be sufficiently corralled.
Christmas is like an R-rated Holiday Inn on steroids. (Remember that old Paramount chestnut with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire as showbiz rivals, a hotel that was open only on holidays and the parade of hits by Irving Berlin? "White Christmas" came from that movie.) Tamarie loves Christmas, but when boozy Christmas Spirit (Greg Dean, channeling Dean Martin with scotch in hand and wearing the best Santa suit ever — an actual red suit with snowmen on it) scrambles out of the chimney to chastise Tamarie about the way his holiday is currently celebrated, she must find a day less polarized. That's when the ULKH, a.k.a. the Union of Lesser Known Holidays, protests: Labor Day, Arbor Day, Earth Day, Armistice Day, Groundhog Day, Presidents' Day, Secretaries Day, Susan B. Anthony Day, Flag Day. Why can't we be everyone's favorite holiday? Give us a chance, they howl; we outnumber you! Not to be outdone, the big guns of Valentine's, St. Patrick's, Easter, 4th of July, Halloween and Thanksgiving are also contenders. Ecumenical and respectful to a fault, Tamarie allows each to have its say. Maybe she has missed something in St. Patrick's Day other than green frat boys puking along Washington Avenue. And Punxsutawney Phil is awfully cute, even if he is a rodent.
Every holiday has it spokesperson, usually accompanied by a backup group in appropriate mufti such as prancing reindeer, Christmas presents, Halloween skeletons or uptight secretaries. All are deliciously over-the-top, costumed in tacky outrageousness by Cooper and Claire Anderson. I really did leave the theater humming the last number, "Make Every Day Special," but by the time I got home, it had wafted away, much like the evanescent score by Joe Folladori and Miriam Daly. In the theater, the songs are strong and funny, thanks mostly to the lyrics by Folladori, Miki Johnson, Patrick Reynolds and Cooper — perhaps the best score any of these summer shows have had — but they still don't stick with you. Once the songs are over, they're over. And the clever lyrics are muddled, either because the actors' enunciation isn't clear enough or the sound mix favors the band. The lyrics are too good to pass over. That should be an easy fix. The bouncing band (Chris Bakos, Cathy Power, Loreta Kovacic-Parani and Kirk Suddreath), under the direction of Jesse Lozano, swings through Daly's orchestrations, as good as any heard near Broadway.
The show's only misfire is a brief monologue from Armistice Day (Greg Dean), heartfelt and terribly earnest. The horrors of trench warfare come from out of nowhere, especially after we've laughed ourselves silly at a rutting bunny and a fey elm. Some stooge in the back row chortled throughout the short scene. What he found so funny was beyond me, but can you blame him? This macabre turn is all wrong for the revue and doesn't play at all.
The huge ensemble cast outdoes itself. Although there are many standouts, I must single out a few who make this production so bizarrely delirious.
As star, director, choreographer and sharer of co-credits as writer, lyricist and costumer, Cooper is a wonder of the world. It wouldn't be a surprise to find out she had nailed the set together, too. She takes the light, as theater folks say, and runs with it. Even when she's surrounded by some of the craziest of crazy actors, you still look at her. A comparison to Lucille Ball is not too far off the mark, but let's not forget the frenzy of Betty Hutton, the sweet raunchiness of Sophie Tucker or, even further back in time, the slapstick of silent movie clown Mabel Normand. Cooper has a robust physicality that is second to none, and she can do things to her face that almost seem impossible. In these comedy revues, she becomes a living cartoon. Perhaps her greatest talent is her generosity, for she's more than willing to step aside and let others do their thing. She knows when to give the light away.
Outside of a smokehouse, you won't find a more delectable ham than Kyle Sturdivant. Potted and completely his own parade, he's a great big inflatable toy — a force of theatrical nature. There is no one like him. As Arbor Day, he can turn an innocuous line of dialogue about "digging a hole...and trimming the foliage" into a sublime foray into the ridiculous, and as the most bootylicious Thanksgiving turkey who sings about the joy of being stuffed from behind, he brings a blush to the cheeks. With characterizations that are out of this world, he's the id gone wild.
In his trio of showstoppers — randy Easter bunny, pompous 4th of July blowhard and debauched Valentine's Cupid — Noel Bowers proves unstoppably funny. Jessica Janes gives Mother Earth razor-sharp lung power, then limns Tamarie's bored Gen X cousin Taylor with deadly deadpan. Christian Holmes is a juiced St. Patrick; John Dunn makes a wondrously Hee Haw racist of step-uncle Roy; Jeanne Harris raps a mighty hip-hopping Susan B. Anthony; and Mateo Mpinduzi-Mott is the politically incorrect Native American who meets Christopher Columbus. He gets one of the show's biggest laughs when he's wounded by the conquistadors and limps off stage, Oww, uh, uh, uh; Oww, uh, uh, uh...It's funny when you hear it, trust me.
It wouldn't be summer in Houston without a crazy-quilt vaudeville from Tamarie Cooper and those Catastrophic troopers on a sublimely goofy warpath. Superbly wrapped (thank you, Ryan McGettigan and Eric Marsh, for those '50s snowflakes and that colorful wash), Christmas is the best present ever. You don't even have to shake it to find out what's in it. It'll shake you.