Diversionary Theatre's Scrooge in Rouge—a British Music Hall ‘Christmas Carol' takes place in a Victorian cabaret. The image is fanciful, quirky and fun, just like the era—for most of the 19th century, Queen Victoria ruled an England she probably didn't recognize when she checked out in 1901. Big cities, big industry, big expansionism, big risks, big dreams: The country was batty for its newfound urban mindset, and the peeps who ran the music halls were happy to mount the burlesque, toilet humor, sexual innuendo, gender-bending and self-effacement that brought hard-drinking, hard-living audiences back for seconds, thirds and ninths.
Vickie's prudish values, in fact, were hopelessly at odds with those of the folks who kept the places humming. And that's exactly the problem with Scrooge in Rouge, or at least the part that's supposed to undermine her throne. For all the efficient quick-change artistry (three actors play 23 roles) and for all of Tony Houck's brilliant moments as soubrette Lottie Obbligato, the vulgarity and hedonism that swirled about those halls is muted and threadbare here.
Muff and fly jokes smack of refinement over raunch; to boot, Vickie herself (often the veiled target of her subjects' outlandishness) gets only cursory mention at the beginning and end. You'll recognize this as a send-up of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, all right—but as for the setting, it's several worlds inexplicably removed from its intent.
I suppose the premise is clever enough—seems 17 members of the Royal Music Hall's Variety Players have come down with a rollicking case of holiday food poisoning, leaving only three to put up this show. Inveterate actor Charlie Schmaltz (Eric Vest) and Lottie will play the lion's share of parts, while male impersonator Vesta Virile (Kim Strassburger) is tasked with the role of Scrooge. The wave of cross-dressing has its campy moments, chiefly because Jennifer Brawn Gittings is such a good costumer and because Houck makes a fantastic ingénue amid his euphoric grin and his unsuspecting swivel of the head—great nuances.
Vest is certainly glad-handing as Charlie; Strassburger does well in a difficult assignment (Vesta, after all, is a character playing a character). But there's something cutesy and mild about it all, such as when Scrooge wishes he “could get special effects on my speeches.” Give him the special effects, then—a solid, bombastic minute of tech wizardry to reflect the patrons' rebellious nature. And what about Vickie's title? She's a queen, for God's sake! At gay-oriented Diversionary, that alone should spark some sassy commentary, but librettist/lyricist Ricky Graham and director Rayme Sciaroni never seem to cop to the clues.
The PR stuff says this show is “a silly send-up for the entire family.” That's an accurate assessment, because I found nothing here that would scar an innocent soul for the rest of his days, let alone the souls of his parents. The music halls of Victoria's time were vastly different, though, and that history clashes markedly with this lukewarm treatment (to say nothing of Jefferson Turner's noncommittal music, played by Rick Shaffer as Alfred Da Capo). Ask yourself what Queen Victoria would have felt if she saw this show. Given the comparative goings-on in a real music hall, she'd probably have thought she was at church.
This review is based on the matinée performance of Nov. 23. Scrooge in Rouge—a British Music Hall ‘Christmas Carol' runs through Dec. 21 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd. in University Heights. $31-$35; ask about discounts. 619-220-0097, www.diversionary.org.