Burying the hatchet (again and again) in ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jesus?’
In last spring’s compulsively watchable “Feud’’ on FX, television auteur Ryan Murphy dramatized the behind-the-scenes battle that ostensibly raged between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford during the making of their camp classic “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’’
No way that was going to escape the notice of Boston’s own camp-loving, pop-culture savvy auteur named Ryan, last name Landry. The redoubtable parodist and impresario of the Gold Dust Orphans has concocted a new musical murder mystery, titled “Whatever Happened to Baby Jesus?,’’ that purports to pick up the story of Blanche and Baby Jane Hudson where the 1962 film left off.
If anything, “Baby Jesus’’ has too much story. Subplots abound, and secondary characters keep pulling focus from one-time movie star Blanche (played by Landry himself) and her deranged sister, Baby Jane (Larry Coen, who also directs). In addition to the Crawford-Davis film, Landry draws heavily on “Summer Stock,’’ the 1950 Judy Garland-Gene Kelly movie. Too heavily, I’d argue. There are times when you do indeed wonder what ever happened to Baby Jane.
Yet Landry’s faith in what might be called the barrage theory — that if he keeps up his volley of jokes, puns, allusions, and double entendres, the hits will ultimately outnumber the misses — is ultimately vindicated.
Landry doesn’t hog the best lines in the shows he writes, but instead distributes the goodies around, and the cast of “Baby Jesus’’ — which includes the invaluable Penny Champayne, Qya Cristal, and Tim Lawton, as well as Kiki Samko as an eyepatch-wearing shrink — makes the most of it. One of Landry’s strengths as a performer is as a reactor; he remains uniquely capable of inducing laughs without saying a word, simply training his mock-imperious gaze on the audience while attired, in “Baby Jesus,’’ in a black wig, red outfit, and thick pearl necklace.
Landry inverts the power dynamic that governs “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’’: Here, it is Blanche, not Jane, who seethes with malice. While Jane is a suspected ax murderer and psychological train wreck, she’s more pitiable than menacing. (Blanche helpfully urges others to “Give her a chance to bury the hatchet.’’) As the body count starts to climb, however, the question on which “Baby Jesus’’ pivots is whether Jane is capable (again?) of . . . murder.
The show opens with the mysterious theft of a statue of the Baby Jesus from a crèche in downtown Burbank and the slaying of a preacher’s wife, then flashes forward years to the Hudson family hometown of Mapleton, Vt. It’s a pretty fraught homecoming as these things go, given that Jane has just emerged from an asylum. Blanche is trying to persuade her sister to snap out of her depression and resume her acting career.
As fate would have it, a theater troupe in need of a place to rehearse has settled upon the barn on a local farm owned by Mary Marvel (Taryn Lane). The production’s director, Joe Parks (Michael Underhill), is romantically involved with Mary’s flamboyant actress sister Abigail (Vanessa Calantropo), but the attraction between Mary and Joe is clear. Meanwhile, people start getting bumped off in Mapleton, in gruesome ways.
Along with Landry’s trademark ransacking of classic American musicals — this time including “Guys and Dolls,’’ “Hello, Dolly!,’’ and “Gypsy’’ — “Baby Jesus’’ delivers an affectionate sendup of the egotism that runs through the theater industry, while having some fun with the images and signature vocal intonations of the two movie icons who inspired the show, especially Bette Davis. There are a couple of amusing riffs on the famous exchange when Crawford’s Blanche says “You wouldn’t be able to do these awful things to me if I weren’t still in this chair,’’ and Jane replies, “But you are, Blanche! You are in that chair!’’
All in all, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jesus?” is a worthy addition to an oeuvre that is as singular as the guy who created it.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JESUS?
By Ryan Landry. Presented by Ryan Landry and the Gold Dust Orphans. Directed by Larry Coen. At Machine nightclub, 1254 Boylston St., Boston, through Dec. 23. Tickets $39.99-$100, www.brownpapertickets.com