While watching “Christmas with Elvis” at the Chopin Theater on Monday night, two competing thoughts occurred to me. And no, “Don’t Be Cruel” wasn’t one of them.
In fact, I’m amazed at how transformative a truly great Chicago actress like Brenda Barrie can be on an otherwise middling to middling series. To say that Barrie throws herself into the role of a sad, single woman ready to pop pills and drink on a lonely Christmas Eve doesn’t even remotely describe the intensity of her work here. It looks like Barrie has decided to make Eugene O’Neill and is proceeding accordingly. He’s very funny too.
My second thought, or rather feeling, was a huge wave of nostalgia for the fearless off-Loop theater of the early 1990s, especially the weird, politically incorrect but always entertaining local holiday entertainment that typified the era. This show is back to mind “Hell cabin” The hugely successful Will Kern play that I enjoy watching every year and which has given most ordinary, working-class Chicagoans a wonderfully funny play that will always half freeze to death.
At the time, I was particularly fond of a venue called the Halsted Theater Center (located at 2700 N. Halsted, on that grand theater avenue), which hosted some truly memorable and extraordinary commercial productions; the most important of which was “Unidentified Human Remains”. and The True Nature of Love,” written by a Canadian author named Brad Fraser, whom I particularly like.
The Halsted Theater Center, along with the back end of the Beat Kitchen, represents the origin story of “Christmas with Elvis,” which has strangely relaunched the Chopin Theater in Wicker Park after a 32-year interregnum, and plausibly goes like this: we might say: a stagnation in the apparent commercial viability of a show in which the Jacob Marley roles and the ghosts of Christmas’s past, present and future were populated primarily by Elvis.
Now the King, hilariously played by Victor Holstein, returns from the dead to offer the series’ hero friendship, music, seduction, spiritual guidance, therapy, and even some formidable sexual favors with a light touch of dead celebrities. And Barrie acts out all this nonsense like it’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
The new version of “Christmas with Elvis,” lavishly produced by playwright Terry Spencer Hesser and friends, is directed by Dexter Bullard, a key figure in 1990s off-Loop theater. I don’t know the full story here, but I think Hesser (who has had a hugely successful career as an Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker) had been dreaming of working with Bullard for a long time, and I think he basically decided: Damn it, now I’m going to hire him and get this done. I can afford another trip to the lovably crazy show filled with the very cool Milwaukee Avenue setting created by Eleanor Kahn.
Frankly, no one would write this thing anymore, given the assumption that Elvis — yes, Elvis — was a potential cure for bulimia, alcoholism, and depression. However, if you can get past that and see what it was and what it is now, it’s really an enjoyable, campy throwback to a lost era of Chicago theater that single, professional urbanites who are a bit lonely in the city can find. bold entertainment to meet your seasonal needs.
At one point, the young woman worries that her relationship with Elvis might lead to necrophilia.
“I don’t speak French,” Elvis replies.
Not funny? Then you wouldn’t want Christmas with this Elvis anyway. But if you’re cracking a smile…
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Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “Christmas with Elvis” (3 stars)
When: Until January 7
Where: Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St.
Working time: 2 hours
Tickets: $50-75 www.chopintheatre.com