“A little bit fruit, A little bit nuts and a whole bunch of holiday cheer”, every December for the last dozen years, “The Fruitcake Follies” have offered enthusiastic audiences their first-class “Season’s Teasins“. Written and hosted by James Gray and featuring the dynamic diva, “Momma”, here the holidays are anything but a drag! Little wonder that the show has developed a genuine cult status among LA-area theater enthusiasts. Oddly enough though, the whole thing was started during the summer of 1999 when Gray did a one man show at the Cinegrill and they asked him for a return engagement. So instead of a Christmas party, he called upon the assistance of a few of his most talented buddies to create a terrific holiday showcase–not to mention a unique–slightly eccentric, and thoroughly delightful experience for everybody.
"The Fruitcake Follies"
This years’ edition began with guests descending the stairs into the basement “Cavern Club” cabaret at the famous Casita Del Campo–a Mexican restaurant in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles, CA. OK, so maybe the cellar-level theater of a Mexican restaurant isn’t the first place one would associate with a review that is fast becoming a southern California tradition, but it’s proof that A-Plus entertainment is where ever you find it. It also helps that the stairwell was decorated with several LP sleeves of some unique (some would even say “notorious”) Christmas albums from the likes of “The Waltons”, “The Brady Kids” and of course the original Star Wars gang’s “Christmas Among The Stars”!
Kicking things off, Mr. Gray proclaimed that unlike other recitals of this nature, there is no “fourth wall”–meaning audience members were certain to be involved in all the festivities. Each new act was introduced via a door at the back of the set which could best be described as “Currier & Ives“ meets “Rank And Bass”; When answered, it revealed (surprise!) who they are and what they’ll be performing.
Sandy Fox: The little lady with the giant voice and talent
Over the years, the review has practically become the gold standard regarding uproarious song parodies, introducing such awesome little ditties as “It’s Christmas And We’re Jewish” and “I Farted On Santa’s Lap (–Now Christmas Really Stinks For Me)”. This time around, one such parody had “Momma” warbling a take off on the old hummer “I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas” reworked into “I Want Some Plastic Surgery For Christmas”. Likewise, James and infinitely perky costar, Sandy Fox had a smart and tuneful go at the classic Irving Berlin duet “You’re Just In Love” made over into “You‘re Not Sick–It’s Just Chris’mus”! Don’t let her lighthearted grin and diminutive stature be too misleading though–Sandy is a powerhouse of a performer whose credits include appearances on “The Muppet Show” and “Lizzie McGuire“, while her voice has been heard on “The Simpsons” and “King of the Hill” among many others.
“Momma” too, made several returns–each dressed more ‘memorably’ than the last. Decked out as a plus-sized Mrs. Claus, she led audience-members in a good old fashioned a sing-a-long of yuletide favorites which worked fantastically! Kind of like the program‘s answer to a seventh inning stretch, it instantly raised the energy in the room, adding a refreshing sense of involvement. (Not only that, it was just plain fun too!)
The REAL Christmas "Carol"
Making his official “Fruitcake Follies debut, newcomer Eric Sappalla demonstrated what happens when only one caroler in a quartet manages to make it to the show on-time. Singing “The Carol Of The Bells”, the situation was even graver–he only knew the base part–in B flat yet! Funny stuff, particularly when he simply stood silently on stage waiting for his part to come in (half way through the imagined verse!) Sappela also had a terrific moment involving a clever duet enacted with dolls–thus allowing him to realize a childhood dream of his own–to sing “Jingle Bells” with his idols, Barbra Streisand and Cher (or at least Barbie-sized versions of them.)
James Gray & "Lolly"
Guest-stars have always played an important part of the program’s success and here too, this year was no exception. They include a yarn-haired puppet named “Lolly“–a five-year-old sugar addict who, along with her handler Leslie Carrera-Rudolph (the talent behind Sesame Street’s very own show-stopper, “Abby Cadabby”) In addition, one particular evening had Master-Tapper, Rusty Frank and “Choreographer to the Stars” Miriam Nelson doing what they do best–dazzling an enthusiastic crowd with some world-class hoofing in a routine saluting the joys of “Egg-Nog”.
Offering up a jovial, joyous “No-Ho-Ho-Ho-el” and very happy “Ha-Ha-Hanukah“, even Kwanza was represented with dead-on send up of “The Lion King’s “ opening number which featured cast members parading through the aisles dressed in holiday costumes in exotic animal prints!) Although the entire production has been likened to a cross between one of Perry Como’s old TV specials and a slightly risqué episode of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, perhaps the best way to think of “The Fruitcake Follies” would be something similar to a Kindergarten Christmas Pageant for adults, its loaded with plenty of feel good moments while still remaining sophisticated enough to keep from being sappy. Sure, there were a few campy moments, but even the most hardened cynic among us would have to admit it was awesome fun–perfect for anyone who could use a little prodding to get into the merry mood this time of year is supposed to evoke.
Gray has had a long history working with Disneyland, where for eleven years, he played the all-important role of Jolly Ol’ St. Nick (–a point he proudly mentions in his opening.) Not coincidentally then, the costumes here are appropriately colorful and styled like they could have been inspired by a winter stroll through the Magic Kingdom. The quality behind-the-scenes doesn’t just stop at the clothing rack either. The entire show was staged by veteran director-choreographer Ted Sprague whose much hailed work is well known to local theater-goers. Perhaps the finest example of their craftsmanship though –the mark of genius that has made this show so popular for over a decade, occurred toward the end of the evening. While standing in line, Ms. Fox greeted guests innocently asking if she might take their pictures. Later, these pics were put to magnificent use as James serenaded the audience with an 11 o’clock rendition of “What A Wonderful World”, while once again on screen a slide show of those whose photos had been taken were displayed. If it hadn’t happened already, immediate audience rapport was cemented–permanently, poignantly and potently–now. Such inspired use of multi-media–especially in so small a space, proves Messrs. Gray, Sprague, and Company’s complete mastery of their crafts.
Who needs “Festivus”? This is the “Best-ivus“ for the rest of us! To learn more about “The Fruitcake Follies“–including M-Pegs of the most off-the-wall songs from past shows (as well as information regarding James Gray’s other upcoming productions,) visit: www.fruitcakefollies.com.
With so much holiday cheer, who needs mistletoe?!
Special thanks and “Happy Holidays” to James Gray, Ted Sprague and the cast of the 2010 edition of “The Fruitcake Follies” for making this story possible, as well as to Rusty Frank, Miriam Nelson, Leslie Carrera and “Lolly”; and to Ted Ragsdale for all his gracious assitance regarding photos.
Cast and Guest-stars alike hope audiences have "A Merry Little Christmas"