Ricky Graham and Jefferson Turner’s “Scrooge in Rouge” bills itself as “Somewhat Loosely Based on the Idea of ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens,” and it doesn’t get much looser than this new gender-bending musical. There’s a man playing a woman, a woman playing a man, a man playing a woman playing a man, a hapless “volunteer” from the audience playing Tiny Tim and loads of bawdy humor. I don’t think Queen Victoria would be amused, but the opening night audience, which as you might imagine skewed Midtown and male, certainly was. The show runs through Dec. 27 at the 14th Street Playhouse.
It’s 1843, and the Royal Music Hall 20 Member Variety Players at Her Majesty’s Promenade Grand Theatre, All-Saints-on-the-Wash, Blackpool, are about to present a new work by Charles Dickens. But 17 members of the cast have come down with food poisoning, leaving an unlikely three to persevere and play all the characters. They are Charlie Schmaltz (Ricky Graham), a desperate-to-please ringleader; Vesta Virile (Yvette Hargis), an actress who seems a bit too type-cast as Scrooge; and Lottie Obligatto (Varla Jean Merman, aka Jeffrey Roberson), a towering maiden who has cornered many a market, including narcissism, dimness (she keeps calling Bob Cratchit “Bob Crabcakes”) and easy virtue, as her fellow actors delight in reminding us. They’re aided by Jefferson Turner, who plays the 20 original songs on an upright piano, stage left.
Because the three actors have to play all the roles, there is plenty of farce: deliberately missed cues, breathless costume changes, sound effects gone awry, etc. And because the show is faithful to its 19th-century British music hall setting, a lot of the jokes are deliberately corny — pre-vaudeville puns designed to elicit groans more than laughs.
A lot of the show’s humor, however, rests on the disturbingly broad shoulders of Varla Jean Merman, the drag alter ego of Roberson, who is well-known in the gay community for her work in “Project: Runway,” the indie film “Girls Will Be Girls” and various cabarets. She can milk a line for much more than it’s worth: Coming out in a Victorian coat, her hands concealed in a tube of fur, she asks the audience, “How do you like my muff?” and then just cocks an eyebrow and wills the laughs to come forth. In a show full of sumptuous costumes and ridiculous wigs, hers are the mostest; her Ghost of Christmas Present looks like a gay Willie Wonka on acid.
Graham wrote the book and lyrics to the musical and directs; Turner wrote the music, which again is fairly authentic music hall. At one point everyone launches into “Let’s All Reside Beside the Seaside,” which has nothing to do with “A Christmas Carol” but is a nod to music hall tradition of a swimsuit number. More indicative of the tone is the lyric Merman sings to Scrooge when she’s hitting him up for a Christmas donation for the poor: “Won’t you reach into your trousers and show your fellow man how big you are?”