“A Kodachrome Christmas” reunites Emmy-award winning actor and Milwaukee favorite son John McGivern with playwright/director Pat Hazell, a consultant on the first season of NBC’s “Seinfeld.” The two collaborated successfully on “Wonder Bread Years” and “Bunk Bed Brothers” to produce nostalgic laughs for Baby Boomer sensibilities. Their latest joint effort blends the spirit of those prior works with McGivern’s popular one-man shows about growing up in Milwaukee.
The result is holiday nirvana for McGivern fans, a gift box of cleverly staged sight gags, folksy insight and seasonal humor wrapped with just enough social realism to make it relevant. If you haven’t found your holiday groove yet, head over to Marcus Center’s Vogel Hall for a guaranteed mood adjustment.
In “Kodachrome,” McGivern dons a skirt and nylons to take on cable access TV hostess Earlene Hoople, the self-proclaimed “Queen of Rural Media,” as she tapes her last Christmas special in front of a live audience in Fredonia. But this is no prancing drag act. McGivern’s Earlene is as authentic as she is colorful, and the man beneath the lipstick quickly disappears in his skillful portrayal
Earlene has recently lost her husband Ray. Her professional shelf life, like that of the Kodachrome film Ray left in the refrigerator, is about to expire. But McGivern’s Earlene still has plenty of heart and enough plucky resolve to see her through the day. Her show will go on.
Although Ray is gone, his beautiful Belgian angel arrives just in time to top the tree on Earlene’s homey set. A blowout on the freeway derails the bell-ringing act set to appear on her broadcast, but the resourceful Earlene, using her spatula as a baton, leads audience members through a bell-ringing number. The Christmas miracles unfold before our eyes.
This is a slickly produced piece of theater, and its inventiveness extends beyond the witty script and McGivern’s polished delivery. The set is almost as alive as Pee-Wee’s playouse, with a pop-up tree and drop-down holiday cards and stockings.
A series of “Saturday Night Live”-style commercials spoof the marketing of religion with great hilarity. One ad, for instance, promotes a service that provides home delivery of holy water. Another is for a microwavable “last supper” TV dinner, which comes complete with a Shroud of Turin tablecloth.
With so many props to juggle, stage manager Lisa Sottile deserves a special shout-out for coordinating all the business in this flawless production. So does wardrobe designer Aria Thornton, whose contributions include a holiday vest made of air fresheners.
The titular Kodachrome slideshow that ends Earlene’s broadcast is a cleverly contrived walk down memory lane. It lovingly resurrects the Baby Boomer past with a meticulously culled scrapbook’s worth of old photographs, which become riotously funny when coupled with Earlene’s commentary.
“We had a saying back then – safety was second,” Earlene quips, flashing a picture of a kid precariously perched on a car seat without a seatbelt.
Earlene opens the show with the adage, “Always arrive with your arms full.” This production follows that advice and, in the end, leaves audiences with their hearts full.
“A Kodachrome Christmas” continues through Dec. 31 at the Marcus Center’s Vogel Hall, 123 E. State St. Call 414-273-7206 or go to www.marcuscenter.org.