How could you lose with a holiday TV special built around the biggest blockbuster film of all time?
By Melanie Hooks
CBS and Star Wars managed it in fine style.
Playwright/Producer and Emmy Award winning screenwriter Andrew Osborne dive into how it all went down December 1978, the only time “The Star Wars Holiday Special” was ever aired. Not available for sale on video, DVD or any paid streaming platform, the only way in 2018 to relive the glory that was a visit to Chewbacca’s home world for a warm celebration of Life Day is via outside bootlegged internet videos…and now, this delightful two hour onstage romp through “how it all might have been.”
Osborne trolled four decades of interviews with the original creative team, most of whom blamed each other for the disaster, and has put together a semblance of what might be the truth, which never gets in the way of some great belly laughs. I hesitate to spoil the actual actor names that TV execs believed were appropriate for the gig, but suffice to say that disco divas, drug rock bands, Golden Girls and The Carol Burnett Show all figure largely. Beginnning with over half an hour of Wookie-only dialogue, the producers managed to create a nightmarishly dull version of science fiction, a Vegas-in-the-70s variety show that everyone hated.
How George Lucas convinced 20th Century Fox to release Empire Strikes Back after this catastrophe is a true testament to Hollywood’s faith in the almighty dollar over taste or common sense. (And of course they were right to take that bet, at least with Empire.) Lucas’s portrayal (Rich Lehmann) as a conflicted enfant terrible/artiste who worries deeply about the finer points of Wookie treehouse living is one of the show’s great delights.
The deft ensemble cast shifts easily between multiple roles/performer, even within scenes. Theatre of NOTE alum Marty Yu returns to their stage after an absence of 14 years in excellent form as two producers who voice competing opinions in every scene together. A special treat for fans of another classic sci-fi film, The Last Starfighter (1984) is Producer/performer Lance Guest, forever famous in certain circles as Alex Rogan, the trailer park teenager who beat a video game and ended up fighting a real space battle for the galaxy’s freedom. Guest more than holds his own against his improv and comedy fellows onstage, barreling through the increasing string of disasters as (amongst other things) a network producer who continues to believe (out loud anyway) that something close to decent can be salvaged.
Director Kerr Seth Lordygan keeps the pacing bright, and Stage Manager/Video Designer Aaron Saldaña makes creative use of the small space to pay homage to such improbable show aspects as a holographic Jefferson Starship appearance. Illustrator Jared Boone adds some fun with his “copyright free” odes to Lucasfilm art.
Welcome attention is paid to 1970s TV culture, and the specificity of writers who believed that a good pratfall or pop medley could solve any problem pays off in obvious modern parallels. (Moody antihero or disconnected millennial angst anyone?) “Special” does rely on some fairly insider humor; personalities of yesteryear might not be as familiar to younger audiences of today for instance. And knowing the personal lives and “Wars” attitudes of stars Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher (played by a hysterically spot-on Paris Benjamin and her ukele) enriches many jokes. But opening weekend audiences skewed fairly young, and the laughs were steady and sincere.
“Special” delights and satisfies its core demographic while appealing to anyone fascinated by Hollywood’s ongoing inability to understand itself. Cue the full-chested female Wookie action figures.
• Written by Andrew Osborne
• Directed by Kerr Lordygan
• Presented by Ol’ Bait
Theatre of NOTE
1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood, CA 90028
• Onstage Thursday through Sunday, through Sunday, January 13, 2019.
• General admission: $25 on Friday and Saturday. $20 on Thursday and Sunday.
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