Judy, Judy, Judy: Taylor Mac’s "Holiday Sauce" is a mischievous feast for the eyes, ears, and soul


Taylor Mac's Holiday Sauce

Usually when I see a show for review, I don’t end up on stage, singing a Pogues song.

But then, most shows are nothing like Taylor’s Mac’s Holiday Sauce, which UMS brought to the Power Center on December 14 and 15.

Mac has so many talents that I’d wear out my hyphen key if I tried to list them all. A MacArthur “Genius” and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Mac created Holiday Sauce as a tribute to the playwright-singer-artist's drag mother, Flawless Sabrina. “She used to always say, ‘You’re the boss, apple sauce,” Mac said, referring to the show's title, and Sabrina regularly hosted "judy" and others during the holidays. (As Mac told the Los Angeles Times, "[M]y gender pronoun is 'judy’ because I wanted a gender pronoun that is an art piece.”)

And indeed, Mac’s final elaborate ensemble for the evening, which made judy resemble a majestic, snow-covered peak, featured what looked like a formation of tiny pine trees that spelled “BOSS” down the gown’s back.

Mac wore this while performing the show’s quietest and most personal number, “Christmas at Grandma’s,” wherein judy sat alone on stage and played ukulele. The darkly comic, ironically jaunty song chronicled what the holidays were like when judy was annually dragged to visit homophobic relatives who were themselves struggling with past sexual abuse, a serious head injury, and alcoholism.

So … a Norman Rockwell painting come to life, right?

But that’s the point, of course: While we’re all confronted each year by cultural depictions of perfect families joyously celebrating the holidays together, the reality is that a good number of us identify far more with the inhabitants of the Island of Misfit Toys.

Taylor Mac's Holiday Sauce

Mac’s wish, as stated repeatedly throughout Saturday’s performance, was to cast a broad net in order to appeal to various audiences -- hence the inclusion of the more traditional “Do You Hear What I Hear,” performed by Detroit’s own Thornetta Davis, “O Holy Night” (albeit with some really irreverent hand motions), and “Silent Night,” which closed out the regular set. But that Pogues song, “Fairytale of New York,” with its hardscrabble sense of disillusionment, was more in keeping with Sauce’s overall tone.

But Mac’s approach to “Fairytale of New York” also demonstrated judy’s cheeky, mischievous charm. After singing a verse or two -- backed by a terrific nine-piece band and two back-up vocalists -- judy asked people in the audience to stand up if they recognized the tune, citing nothing more than curiosity. Then judy quickly said, “I lied, I want you all to come on stage.” A few dozen of us then climbed up the stairs, grabbed tiny Solo cups filled with cider, and did our best to impersonate a swaying, British pub crowd.

Other parts of Holiday Sauce incorporated several singers and performers. James Tigger! Ferguson -- called “The Godfather of Neo-Boylesque" -- portrayed baby Jesus in a nest as Mac explained the pagan origins of several Christmas traditions and later performed a burlesque striptease. Glenn Marla played Sexual Consent Santa (or “Consenta Claus,” as judy called them) in an underdeveloped comedic bit. Music director and pianist Matt Rey did short, occasional riffs on traditional Christmas carols to make them sound Jewish and klezmer-y. And back-up vocalist Steffanie Christi’an near blew the roof off the Power Center with her scorching, stirring rendition of Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands.”

Yet one of the show’s stars I haven’t even talked about yet is costume and set designer Machine Dazzle (né Matthew Flower). His opulent, colorful, gleefully over-the-top sets and costumes, plus the show’s eye-popping, imaginative visuals, were at least half the fun.

Some of Dazzle's gems included Mac’s nutcracker knee socks, paired with a yuletide-Medusa headdress; an outfit made from what appeared to be elf arms and two glittery, green boar’s heads functioning as cap sleeves; and a mobile- or chandelier-like ensemble judy wore while suspended above the stage singing Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Cathedral.” 

At the show’s start, Mac emerged in full regalia from a giant, smoking cauldron, giving you the immediate sense that you’ve suddenly arrived at Willy Wonka’s factory with a golden ticket in-hand. (Dazzle also plays a role in Sauce as a Christmas tree -- and while this is a far more active role than you might initially think, I won’t spoil it by saying more.)

Mac said that cauldron would be where we temporarily stored our political worries, anger, and pain for the evening. But politics played a role throughout the show, as judy addressed the pitfalls of capitalism (via Dinah Washington’s “Bargain Day,” among others) and unpacked the not-so-great messages embedded in The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which featured accompaniment by a local “elder choir."

There’s no doubt Mac is a powerful, witty, and versatile vocal performer, and Holiday Sauce offers a feast for the eyes and ears. But it’s a tribute to judy’s shrewd storytelling instincts that Sauce, despite its goofy tangents, ultimately manages to strike a delicate balance between its Velvet Underground-fueled nihilism and its heartfelt, more hopeful sincerity. For after giving audiences a dose of “radical fairy realness,” Mac offered, as an encore, a rendition of one of judy’s mom’s favorite hymns, “How Can I Keep From Singing.”

It was lovely.

And in a dark theater filled with people who are worried and anxious about where we’re headed, it felt like grace.

Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.

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