Sitting in some bemusement in the Steppenwolf Garage Theatre on Sunday night, I found myself wondering if I'd ever seen a Christmas cabaret show — this one was actually subtitled "A Holiday Bender" — where I had absolutely no idea, for great swaths of the evening, what, exactly, was going on.
But then Scott Bradley, the writer and lyricist of "We Three Lizas," the bizarre, adult, less-than-coherent and thus weirdly refreshing new Christmas musical from About Face Theatre, is not a conventional kind of writer, as his formidably bizarre, Freddie Mercury-fueled concoction "Alien Queen" proved a couple of years back. Who else would come up with the notion of a Liza Was (played, very amusingly, by the fearless Danielle Plisz) sharing the stage with a Liza Is (played by Bradley himself, the Liza Minnelli du jour being more accommodating to drag)? I kept looking at my program in search of a seemingly inevitable Liza Yet to Come. There was no such listing, although there was, I think, another Liza represented by a giant eyeball.
Actually, the Lizas are not Bradley's problem, especially as the two main models are played with such witheringly adroit aplomb. When the Lizas are actually in the building, the show has a certain spring in its step, you might say. The Z's just take a long, long time to arrive, leaving us lost in what seems to be a television studio where one Conrad Ticklebottom (Scott Duff), a designer of boxes with an empire called the House of Conrad, is going through a Scrooge-like transformation (with shades of Chekhov and "It's a Wonderful Life") involving Reggie (Dana Tretta), his nervous assistant who dreams of greater things in a queerer world. Things progress — toward some goal deep within Bradley's skull — from there.
You have to give Bradley and his cohorts (Scott Ferguson directs) credit for not just serving up a few cocktails in the lobby and trotting out a few Liza-baked renditions of "New York, New York," "Bye Bye Blackbird," or "My Own Best Friend." In fact, "We Three Lizas" has a full-blown original score (with music by the very talented young composer Alan Schmuckler), replete with a stellar power ballad for Tretta, who does her darndest to keep this show on some kind of cogent track, and various intriguing specialty numbers (for Sean Blake, Arturo Soria and other big personalities in the cast), accompanied by a live jazz band. The design work is notably stellar, especially the delightful purple-hued costumes created by Mieka van der Ploeg and Robert S. Kuhn. In fact, the Steppenwolf Garage, generally a merely utilitarian space, has been converted into quite the glamorous little venue by Jerry Dye. Therein, Bradley's wobbly Liza bares her soul and her vocal chords.
Now, back to that little matter of dramaturgical coherence. Or, you could always head to the lobby and have another Christmas cocktail instead.
When: Through Dec. 23
Where: The Steppenwolf Garage, 1624 N. Halsted St.
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes
Tickets: $25 at 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.org