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Theatre in Review: Who's Holiday! (Westside Theatre)/So Long, Boulder City (Subculture)

Top: Lesli Margherita. Photo: Carol Rosegg. Bottom: Jimmie Fowler. Photo: Monique Carboni.

The past week brought us two high-concept, low-camp one-person shows, each of which takes a different path to engage the audience. The Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) estate managed to stop Who's Holiday! from being seen last season, but, after a court ruled in favor of author Matthew Lombardo, it has arrived Off Broadway, where one imagines it could become a Yuletide favorite, both here and around the country. It stars Lesli Margherita as Cindy Lou Who, she who, as a tiny tot, melted the heart of the Grinch, thereby preventing him from stealing Christmas. That was then; now she is a rather brassy, lacquered matron inhabiting a trailer on the outskirts of Whoville. Speaking in rhymed couplets -- in a voice marked by a high-pitched vibrato that suggests she has been spending too much time in Munchkinland -- she models a leopard coat, pours herself generously sized cocktails ("They're the same color, so it's okay," she says, pouring gin and vodka into the same glass), and vamping an audience member in the front row.

Cindy Lou is planning a blowout Christmas party on this very evening, but, as she fields regrets-bearing phone calls from the likes of Yertle the Turtle and Morris McGurk, she lets down her hair and tells the story of how she became the town outcast. It's a sordid tale that begins with her deflowering at the hands of the Grinch and continues through a bad marriage and jail time on a bum murder rap. Neither Barbara Stanwyck nor Susan Hayward in their film vehicles ever had the woes of poor Cindy Lou, who is determined to fight her way back to respectability, even if it kills her.

The surprise of Who's Holiday! is that, as the story darkens, the playwright and star go with it, forgoing laughs (mostly) for a good third of its running time; this sort of show rarely asks audiences to feel anything, but, under Carl Andress' remarkably adept direction, you may find yourself genuinely touched as Cindy Lou, alone in the night, delivers a downbeat little ditty titled "Blue Christmas."

I hasten to add that Who's Holiday! finds it comic groove again, stopping to take a priceless swipe at the musical Wicked even as it hones in on an inspirational finale. Because of moments such as these, as well as bawdy accounts of Cindy Lou's personal life, this one is contraindicated for family audiences, but adults who enjoy their eggnog with an extra jigger of bourbon will gulp it right down. It comes in a remarkably slick package, including David Gallo's cutaway trailer set, bedecked with tinsel, trees, and twinkle lights; Ken Billington and Jonathan Spencer's lighting, which casts snowflake patterns all over the auditorium; and Bart Fasbender's sound, which, amusingly, includes the effect of a rusty gate opening, deployed the moment when latecomers -- God help them -- are seated. Special mention goes to Jess Goldstein for dressing Cindy Lou in shiny red capri pants and a spangled green bustier. Dr. Seuss' heirs can rest easy; despite the sordid details, this account of Cindy Lou's later life abounds in the holiday spirit.

If Who's Holiday! will instantly be recognizable to anyone raised on Dr. Seuss and the television special based on How the Grinch Stole Christmas -- that is to say, most of America -- So Long, Boulder City depends, at least in part, on one's having seen last year's Oscar contender La La Land. If you have, then you know that the heroine, Mia Dolan, a struggling actress in Los Angeles, decides to jump-start her career with an autobiographical one-woman show, presented in a showcase production. Not only is the opening night a disaster, Sebastian, Mia's boyfriend, doesn't show up. It's not really his fault, but it causes her to flee back home to Nevada, sending the story careening to its finale. In the film, we only get tiny glimpses of So Long, Boulder City, as her opus is titled; Jimmy Fowlie and Jordan Black, television writers with extensive resumes, have decided to imagine for us what Mia's solo piece would be like -- with Fowlie, who is male, in the lead role.

In its funniest moments, So Long, Boulder City is a deadly accurate spoof of the kind of high-hopes, low-rent fringe theatre epic that most of us have had to sit through at one time or another, if only out of loyalty to old friends or college classmates. Fowlie, who, in a wig, looks surprisingly like Sarah Jessica Parker -- even though he makes no attempt to disguise his chest, arm, and leg hair -- portrays Mia as the eternal ingenue, armed with a full array of clueless statements and aren't-I-adorable gestures. (One such combo, featuring a saucy look and a toss of her hair, is a reliable laugh-getter.) However, Mia is often undone by her extreme commitment to realizing every second of her theatrical vision in full; for example, every time she takes on her mother's persona, even for a single line, she dutifully puts on a pair of opera gloves, never mind how long it takes. And then, of course, they have to come off.

The best moments in So Long, Boulder City feature Mia being her utterly unaware self. "So, there I was, rolling into Boise State, my dream school. Twenty percent of applicants don't even get accepted," she crows. Setting her heart on an acting career, she plans to secure her success "by getting the one thing that makes every Hollywood producer take you seriously: a BFA in musical theatre!" (That line got an especially knowing laugh at the performance I attended.) She sticks to her guns, too, even as she auditions for an all-white production of Once on This Island and doesn't get cast.

After a while, however, it becomes clear that So Long, Boulder City has little more than one-liners to offer, which vary wildly in quality, and the evening grows tiresome before long. It's the sort of premise that would have worked much better in a short sketch, and Fowlie and Black, who also directed, struggle to keep it going. This is a low-budget offering, but the one-named set designer, Diggle, has come up with a prodigious load of props with which to keep Mia occupied, Sarah Lurie's lighting faithfully matches Mia's moods, and M.L. Dogg's sound design includes piano underscoring for tender moments as well as pop selections such as a-ha's "Take on Me" and David Bowie's "Let's Dance." Like Cindy Lou, Mia ends up as starry-eyed as ever, but if I had to choose one of these entertainments, I'd go with the former: Cindy Lou's holiday get-together dares to offer more than a few easy laughs. -- David Barbour

(11 December 2017)

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