OK sourpusses, snap to cheery attention: The holidays are here. No, it hasn’t been easy, despite all the early snow, to get into the proper frame of merriment this year. The spirit may be willing, but the occasion has seemed weak. Not even the capture of Saddam Hussein could get the eggnog flowing. The darkening prospect of another bout of Curious George W. makes it hard for anyone, except the fat cats at Halliburton, to go “ho, ho, ho!” I knew something was wrong when immediately after putting up my Christmas tree, I began plotting how to dispose of it. Clearly, a festivity adjustment was called for. I promptly booked myself into the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.
A jolly madness barreled through Radio City’s famous art deco corridors, with parents shelling out up to $125 a ticket to give their loved ones the Rockette memory of a lifetime. Too bad, then, that all the children in attendance seemed to be stricken with the croup. The coughing temporarily subsided during the 3-D film of Santa flying through the New York skyline, dispensing gifts from his sled to Manhattan rich kids. An emcee Santa then led the celebration of the true meaning of Christmas—lots and lots and lots of presents. Young Clara danced a dream sequence where her toys actually came to life (with an odd penchant for butt jokes), while the Rockettes pretended that they were store window mannequins granted momentary animation through the miracle of shopping. I knew it was time to leave, however, when Santa, exploding a cannon at a line of Rockettes kitted out as wooden soldiers, started dragging the fallen bodies into his sack. What was for most an instance of holiday magic seemed to me a trenchant allegory of American capitalism.
My condition was obviously bordering on Scrooge-like acuity. What else was there to do, then, but place myself in the hands of Dickens? If anyone could banish the killjoy specter of Marx, it was the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future urging us to be lavish with our hearts and wallets. The Madison Square Garden Theater, home of the 10th annual A Christmas Carol: The Musical, is not, however, the ideal environment for spiritual self-renewal. It was like watching a Vegas-style extravaganza on a subway car during rush hour, with everyone elbowing past to get to their seats or treat themselves to another tub of caramel corn. “Bah, humbug,” I mumbled to myself after reading that this was the final year MSG was hosting the event. Jim Dale, who’s the last in the production’s all-star lineup of Scrooges, deserves better, as does the army of children, whose raucous screaming seemed only tangentially related to the cartoonish drama unfolding onstage.
Craving something a bit more soulful, I headed uptown to the United Palace to experience Nativity: A Life Story, the gospel version of the birth of Christ, starring Stephanie (“I Never Knew Love Like This Before”) Mills as the Virgin Mary. Now, here was a theater-cum-church where religious revelations were meant to occur. Between the joyous r&b voices and fluid interpretive dancing, I began to feel the frozen ground inside of me melt. Unfortunately, the production isn’t a concert version but includes plodding narration of the—forgive me, Lord—far-fetched New Testament saga. As Mary tries to explain to Joseph how she divinely got pregnant in his absence, my mind flooded with questions that the pious musical simply couldn’t handle. “Sing another song,” the unlapsed Catholic part of me nervously demanded. But by this time it was too late. I had fallen prey to seasonally inappropriate, if not downright blasphemous, thoughts.
My benighted path led straight to the seedy Belt Theater, where Lea Delaria’s holiday cabaret, Virgin Mary, Make Mine a Double, was flying under the Vatican’s radar. Like me, Delaria hasn’t been feeling it this year. Not only does the sound of “Silent Night” send the bull dyke in her into a cruising-for-a-bruising mood, but she’s also too inflamed with vengeance for her own “axis of evil” (George Bush, Pope John Paul II, and Andrew Lloyd Webber) to wish anyone glad tidings. Fortunately, her jazz crooning of Christmas carols is enough to buoy anyone’s flagging spirits, though the accompanying raunchy patter, not to mention goofy sex-toy games with eager audience members, weren’t exactly part of the old-fashioned Christmas I had in mind.
Prepared to give up, I decided instead to finagle a ticket to Jackie Hoffman’s Hanukkah, a one-night-only gig at the Lucille Lortel that represented my last chance at holiday redemption. Dressed in her Hairspray dressing-room robe, the angst-wracked comedian poses as a Christmas-quashing diva who can’t help taking “O Come, All Ye Faithful” as an anti-Semitic attack. Surrounded by funny friends (including the obsessive-compulsive humorist Seth Rudetsky, who offers a lecture on Barbra Streisand’s maddeningly idiosyncratic phrasing), Hoffman strives to take “the Hanukkah celebration out of the kosher closet.” In the process, she teaches the wisest of holiday lessons—that the only way to survive the season is to renew all your old prescriptions and convert the endless ironies of this darkest time of year into killingly funny jokes.