Oakland’s annual holiday fundraiser is a real drag

By Milan Paurich

YOUNGSTOWN — For some area theater fans, the holiday season means only one thing: a return visit to the Oakland Center for the Arts’ annual Yuletide fundraiser, “How the Drag Queen Stole Christmas.”

Robert Dennick Joki (“Reefer Madness,” “The Rocky Horror Show”), the show’s writer, director and star, recently took a break from his breakneck rehearsal schedule to discuss the show’s genesis, its unprecedented success/popularity and why the Oakland reprises the show every December.

Q. What was your original inspiration for “How the Drag Queen Stole Christmas,” and how did it first come about?

A. In the winter of 2006, the Oakland was facing tough times with declining ticket sales and rising utility bills. The board of directors was strongly considering closing the theater for the winter months. In a last-ditch effort to keep the doors open, a group of us decided to put together a holiday fundraiser — something new and exciting that would be exclusively “Oakland.” I wrote the first version of the script over Thanksgiving weekend that year. The event was meant to be a one-time thing, but it’s now in its fourth year.

Q. For those of our readers who’ve never seen “Drag Queen” before, what’s the basic plot outline? Or is it just a series of blackout comedy skits and musical numbers?

A. The script follows the narrative arc of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” but I also took inspiration from “How The Grinch Stole Christmas,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” and even “Gone With The Wind.” It parodies politics and pop culture and is rewritten every year adding new characters, new jokes and new music. It’s a Christmas show for people who need a break from traditional Christmas shows. Some have called it “It’s a Wonderful Life ... On Crack” (laughs).

Q. How large a cast are you working with? And who’s in the show?

A. Besides myself, the cast includes Brooke Slanina, Stacy Anderson, Murad Shorrab, Monica Collier, Nicole Zayas, Ryan Haupricht, Andrew Labedz, Suzanne Shorrab, Max Hanni, Molly Makselan, David Munnell, Marisa Zamary and Juleah Buttermore. Nicole, Suzanne and Brooke have been with us for the last two years, but Murad, Andrew and I are the only ones left over from the original production. I wrote the script with the original performers in mind, trying to mimic their individual diction and sense of humor in the dialogue. Over the years, the show has changed, actors have moved away or swapped roles, new characters have been introduced. It’s amazing to see how the show has evolved. Only one skit has remained virtually unchanged since the beginning. “The Ghost of Christmas Future” scene with Murad Shorrab as a plus-sized Cher from the year 2026 is an audience favorite, and I’ve made very few alterations.

Q. What type of music can we expect to hear in “Drag Queen”? Broadway standards, rock ’n’ roll, Christmas carols?

A. In the past, the show has been more of a jukebox musical, using popular songs to tell the story, la “Moulin Rouge” or “Across The Universe.” This year, we’re trying something different. We’re using the melodies of popular Christmas songs and changing the lyrics and tempos to better tell our story. We previewed “The 2009 Celebrity Death Song” (set to the tune of “Jingle Bells”) and “The Naughty Christmas Carol Medley” at the Oakland’s annual open house last summer, and they were a big hit. Rewriting the lyrics to songs people have been listening to for hundreds of years has been a major challenge, but it’s also been a lot of fun.

Q. Previous versions have played one weekend only. Why did you decide to stretch it out over two weekends this year? And will there be any “audience participation” midnight shows like “Rocky Horror”?

A. “How The Drag Queen Stole Christmas” has become one of the best-selling shows in Oakland history. For that reason, we decided to add a second weekend of performances this year. We’re also doing a special midnight show on December 12th that will be even more risqu than the 8 p.m. performances. As always, patrons are encouraged to dress up for the midnight show.

Q. The show is described as Oakland’s “annual holiday fundraiser.” Which charity are you helping out with proceeds from the performances?

A. We’ve had amazing attendance at the Oakland so far this year. “Reefer Madness,” “Trailer Park,” “Rent Jr.” and “The Rocky Horror Show” all had sold-out performances. The problem is that musicals are very expensive to produce. The royalties alone for a popular show like “Rocky” can easily exceed the revenue brought in by ticket sales, even if you have great audiences. “How the Drag Queen Stole Christmas” raises the money that keeps the Oakland’s doors open from December to March, and allows us to continue bringing quality live shows to the community. There’s also a wine-and-cheese reception before every performance at 7 p.m. Patrons are given a chance to bid on items from our fabulous Chinese Auction, which features creations from local artists, as well as Oakland memorabilia and drag-show related items. After the show, the cast does a meet-and-greet with the audience for picture-taking. When I think about how many Christmas cards we show up on each year, I can’t stop laughing.

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