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‘Drag Queen’ is not-so-traditional Valley tradition

YOUNGSTOWN — Talk of holiday traditions conjures images of wholesome family gatherings and familiar carols of the season.

But for 14 years, one Mahoning Valley Christmas tradition has involved pill-popping drag queens and songs with titles that can’t be printed in the newspaper.

Rust Belt Theater Company founder Robert Dennick Joki, creator and star of “How the Drag Queen Stole Christmas,” said, “We have people who’ve come to see it every year since it started. I take pictures with families and they send it out as their Christmas card.”

Joki plays Starrlet O’Hara, a tyrant drag queen who is visited by three ghostly divas after firing all of her performers on Christmas Eve. While the basic frame work of the musical remains the same since Joki first performed it at the Oakland Center for the Arts, the show is built in a way that he can add material to spoof politics, current events and pop culture.

In recent years, the inspiration for the Ghost of Christmas Present has taken the form of a celebrity who died in the past year. This year no celebrity stuck out to Joki who he reverted to his original Ghost of Christmas Present — a drag queen dressed as a present.

Other changes include the addition of projections to better establish the different settings and two new songs.

“I got rid of some of the dialogue and replaced it with songs,” Joki said. “One is ‘Shade,’ which takes place in the drag dressing room. It’s about drag queen banter, how they talk to each other, simultaneously complimenting and insulting each other. It’s all tongue in cheek and in good fun.”

As for the other new song, it’s working title was “Misery Loves Company,” but the actual is one of those that can’t be repeated here. And if the regular production is recommended for mature audiences, midnight shows planned on Dec. 14 and 21 promise to push the boundaries even further.

This year’s cast features Nicole Zayas, Joshua Fleming, Jojo Garcia, Jeremy Grimes, Erik Glasgow, Wesley Miller, Kage Coven, Janelle Yohman, Keith Stepanic, Josh Yohman, Lisa Torrence, Amanda Rudnytsky, Celena Coven, Rian Davis, Tay Love, Heather Powell, Austin Brown, Alicia Royer, Abigail Kremm and Geri DeWitt.

“How the Drag Queen Stole Christmas” has been the most successful show in Rust Belt’s repertoire of original productions, drawing crowds big enough that the show was moved into the gymnasium for several years. While the theater could use the cash that came with the bigger audiences, Joki believes something was lost in the big room, especially with the poor acoustics, and it’s a better fit in the center’s old chapel.

“In the gym, it was more of a spectacle,” Joki said. “It does have a moral. At its heart, it’s basically ‘A Christmas Carol,’ just a little bit more modern. That was lost there … I’m just not comfortable doing it in the gym. The quality of show suffered. It seems more like us here in the chapel.”

Joki also decided to cut back on the seating in the chapel, capping attendance at about 100 each night instead of squeezing 120 people or more into the intimate space. They increased the ticket price to offset the smaller capacity, but it isn’t affecting sales. Only a few tickets remain for the first two weekends, and about 75 percent of the tickets are sold for the third and final weekend.

Each performance will include a complimentary wine and cheese reception, and theatergoers will be able to purchase the work of local artists in “Starrlet’s Workshop.”

An opening night after party is planned Friday at Club Switch, 221 Belmont Ave., Youngstown, that will include drag performances and prize giveaways.