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‘Drag queen’ musical marks its 15th year

YOUNGSTOWN — “How the Drag Queen Stole Christmas” started out in 2007 rebelling against those message-delivering shows that become holiday traditions.

That’s changed over the years, according to Rust Belt Theater Company founder Robert Dennick Joki, who co-wrote the music with Josh Taylor and plays its Scrooge-like character, tyrannical drag club owner Starrlet O’Hara. It returns to the Calvin Center on Friday for a three-weekend run.

“It started out trying to be as edgy as possible, doing things that made people gasp,” Joki said. “Something happened around year five, and what made me realize it is when patrons would come up with tears in their eyes and say they needed something to take their minds off of whatever makes them sad at the holidays.

“It not just some underground, drag queen comedy … We still try to make it funny, there are still these big gags, but there is a lesson. The main character does have a change of heart. People are not just all good or all bad. Some are just a little misunderstood and need a little consideration.”

Last year’s live production was scrapped because of COVID-19. Joki already had planned to tighten the script — the story of a drag queen and club owner who his visited by three ghosts after firing all of her employees and learns the errors of her ways — for 2020, and and he went even further this year.

“Since people haven’t heard the dialogue in two years, it was an opportunity to woodshed things that are not relevant anymore, but we kept doing because people expected it,” Joki said.

There are a couple of COVID-19 references, but Joki said he wanted to provide an escape from the last 21 months, now dwell on them. As in the past, the Ghost of Christmas Present scene changes every year to include references to the past year.

Joki, who also directed the show, will be joined in the cast by Nicole Zayas, Dean LaSalandra, Jeremy Grimes, Caitlyn Murphy, Sam Mentzer, Sarah Whitlach, Vicci Sfikas, Rachel Clifford, Diane Marie, Wesley Miller, Kage Coven, Josh Yohman, Lisa Torrence and Celena Coven.

Each performance will include a complimentary wine and cheese reception, and theatergoers also will be able to purchase jewelry and souvenirs at Starrlet’s Workshop. Money will be raised for various local charities during intermission.

“How the Drag Queen Stole Christmas” has been a consistent moneymaker for the theater company that specializes in original work, but Joki said ticket sales have been slower than usual ahead of Friday’s opening night.

“For the first time ever, I don’t think opening night will be sold out,” Joki said. “We may stream it (online) the last weekend. We’ll see how that goes. But it’s nice to be performing with these people again. The first time we sang together, some of the of the performers had tears in their eyes, because we didn’t get to do this last year.”

If you go …

WHAT: Rust Belt Theater Company — “How the Drag Queen Stole Christmas”

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday through Dec. 17, 8 p.m. and midnight Dec. 18 and 8 p.m. Dec. 19

WHERE: Calvin Center, 755 Mahoning Ave., Youngstown

HOW MUCH: $20. Tickets can be reserved by calling or texting 330-507-2358 or purchased in advance through Eventbrite.

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