Entertainment » Theatre

Whatever Happened to Baby Jesus?

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Wednesday Dec 6, 2017
Larry Coen and Ryan Landry in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jesus?"
Larry Coen and Ryan Landry in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jesus?"  

Leave it to Ryan Landry to come up with a sequel to "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?," the classic 1962 shocker that starred Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in what was to be for both roles that would rejuvenate their careers. (More recently the story behind the film made the basis of "Feud," one of the year's best television series that starred Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon as its famous co-stars.)

At Machine, Landry imagines what happened to the film's characters -- the prim Blanche Hudson and her over-the-top sister Jane (once famous as child star Baby Jane Hudson) -- after the film's final beach scene and fashioned it as a holiday entertainment wittily titled "Whatever Happened to Baby Jesus?" In this version Blanche has moved to Vermont just when Jane is released from the behavioral health institute she's been living in for years. At the onset Jane heads to live with her sister, but you can only wonder if she's going to return her old ways of torturing Blanche with rats served for lunch on silver trays.

No worries. Landry's imaginative take on the characters moves far afield of the original film and instead offers a droll parody of those "putting on a show" musicals Hollywood produced in the early 1950s, most notably "Summer Stock," which had Gene Kelly and Judy Garland putting on a show in a barn. Here Blanche settles in an inn run by the sweet tempered Mary (the charming Taryn Lane) who lives there with her stage struck sister Abigail (the big-voiced Vanessa Calantropo). Behind her sister's back, Abigail invites an acting troupe headed by Joe, (the splendid Michael Underhill) to the inn to put on a show, which becomes a pet project for Blanche who bankrolls the production to give Jane a comeback roll. That emotionally Jane is, well, bonkers becomes a bit of a stumbling block.

And then there are the murders, which start happening with greater frequency once Jane is in town, including a beheaded chorus boy who crashes the first act finale. Is Jane up to her old tricks? Perhaps, but in this meme Landry draws upon the plot to "Straight Jacket," the 1964 William Castle mystery in which Crawford gives one of her most exposed performances. The cross-references to old Joan Crawford movies is what we've come to expect from Landry, who takes these campy melodramas and gives them comic synergy; but what he's grown to do so well is incorporate classic musical-comedy elements into the mix. Take when Blanche (played by Landry) arrives to town to the tune of "Hello, Dolly!" -- it is such a star turn that you can only expect Bette Midler would be green with envy. Or when no less than Beyonce (Qya Cristál) stops the show with a cleverly reworked take on the old chestnut "Sit Down Your Rocking the Boat." Landry's ability to channel old movies plots and musical theater songs with fresh new lyrics has never been more on target as it is here.

Much of the production's success also has to do with Larry Coen's staging, which moves with breakneck speed and keen affection for the campiness of the writing. Coen does double-duty here playing the loony Jane as if he wandered in from some Tennessee Williams melodrama and is quite funny at it. His best bit is a meta-moment involving Jane taking allocution lessons from the real Bette Davis (played quite wittily by William York). As Blanche Landry is in his comfort zone -- affectionately menacing in a bigger than life performance. There is also terrific support from Penny Champayne (Scott Martino) as a local matriarch who is out to get her nerdy son married to Mary. Champayne is so good that you wish there was more of him. He does, though, perform double duty as the production's droll costume designer. Kudos as well to the impressive musical direction (from Tim Lawton) that brings to mind the vocal arrangements found in old MGM musicals (think Kay Thompson) that are expertly performed by this full-voiced cast. If anything, about the only misstep is that in the convoluted plot you never really know what happens to baby Jesus; but it hardly matters. There is way too much fun to distract you from needing an answer to the question in the show's title.

"Whatever Happened to Baby Jesus?" continues through December 23 at Machine Night Club, 1254 Boylston Street, Boston, MA. For more information, visit the Gold Dust Orphans' Facebook page.

Robert Nesti can be reached at rnesti@edgemedianetwork.com.


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