Rarely have I witnessed so much mutual love and connection as I did while attending “A Very Lillian Baxter Christmas,” not only from the performers on stage, but also from the sold-out crowd in attendance Monday at The White Rabbit Cabaret in Indy’s Fountain Square neighborhood.
Baxter was played by popular local actor John Vessels, who most recently made a huge impression on me in last fall’s “Bright Star” at Phoenix Theatre. Accompanying her on keyboard was Moishe Ronsenblatt, played by Jay Schwandt, Vessels’ collaborator and husband. The two created the Lillian Baxter franchise that began in 2006 as a cabaret act titled, “An Evening with Lillian Baxter,” in which the headliner is a former MGM film and television star.
Vessels’ and Schwandt’s White Rabbit show was a reprise of their second show, “A Very Lillian Baxter Christmas,” in which Baxter realizes, with hilarious results, that her substitute pianist is Jewish during the course of her presentation of a Christmas show. In this reincarnation of the duo’s show, Rosenblatt’s backstory involves him being fired from a synagogue in Martinvsille, Indiana for unexplained reasons
Vessels’ transformation into Baxter, a sweet, kind, good-natured, motherly figure was flawless. This was not your average lip-syncing drag queen performance (with all due respect to that art form), the likes of which I had not seen since I first saw the famed Jewel Box Revue during my first visit to San Francisco in 1984. The men in this group of female impersonators sang in their own voices. They left an indelible impression on me as master illusionists. Vessels subtly campy illusion was just as complete, down to Lillian’s hair, makeup, clothes, accessories and, of course, her incredible vocal range and power and physical idiosyncrasies.
The show’s first act opened with a mashup of “It’s Today/”We Need a Little Christmas,” by Jerry Herman. A highlight for me was “Let in Snow,” set to songs from “Fiddler on the Roof,” and the crowd favorite, as well as my own, was “Deck the Halls,” set to “Mack the Knife,” a performance that brought down the house.
Unexpectedly, Act 2 included mostly ballads. I say “unexpectedly” because I heard some laughter near the beginning of this segment from audience members who perhaps did not take Lillian seriously at this juncture. This part of the program reflected Lillian’s humanity and message of acceptance of everybody’s traditions. Songs which moved me deeply, included Peter Yarrow’s “Light One Candle,” “Just in Time for Christmas” by David Friedman, and “One Little Snowflake” by Schwandt & Vessels.
As noted previously, the audience was made up mostly of Vessels (and Schwandt’s) fans, many of whom represented Indy’s theatre community. In attendance were such luminaries as Chuck Goad, Suzanne Fleenor, Marni Lemons, Michael Lasley, Don Farrell, Anne Beck, John Kern, Paul Hansen, Brent Marty, Devan Mathias, Keith Potts, and many, many others. It was a testament to Vessels, both the man and his talent, that so many of his peers showed up to cheer him on. For an encore, Baxter/Vessels led the audience in Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” Hearing that song performed by all those marvelous, trained voices, in such a spirit of affectionate camaraderie was an experience I will not soon forget.