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The long way to Off-Broadway for Who's Holiday!
Playwright Matthew Lombardo was relaxing on a Fort Lauderdale beach with his longtime friend, director Rob Ruggiero, when the idea for Who's Holiday! was hatched. Ruggiero asked Lombardo if he would pen a playlet for Christmas on the Rocks, an anthology of satirical shorts featuring twisted versions of iconic holiday characters. Lombardo said yes, but on one condition: he called dibs on Cindy Lou Who from Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
The resulting 10-minute solo piece, Going Green, debuted in 2013 at TheaterWorks in Hartford, CT with a 40-something Cindy Lou Who griping about her relationship with the Grinch in rhyme. "It knocked 'em dead," Lombardo recalls. "And I thought, there's something here. Maybe I need to expand on this and develop it into a full-length play."
After a few years of work, Who's Holiday! was set to make its Off-Broadway debut last season. Lombardo had a theatre, a director, designers, and a star. Then he was blindsided by a cease and desist letter from Dr. Seuss's estate. "Maybe I'm just naive, but I didn't think there would be a problem because I knew it was parody," Lombardo says. "I didn't think they would even try to do something like that. Plus the fact that we didn't hear anything from them during Christmas on the Rocks. But I think once it hit New York the game changed a little bit. We had just put up the marquee that day and I was walking home from the gym a few days later and they were taking it down. It was a bad Christmas last year, very bad. I was extremely depressed."
But then he decided to fight back...in court. "I had a responsibility to everyone involved in the project," Lombardo says. "And, in a bigger-picture sense, I had a responsibility to artists everywhere who might have to go through something like this."
Ten months and thousands of dollars later, Lombardo prevailed and Who's Holiday! has arrived at the Westside Theatre in a production starring Lesli Margherita of Matilda The Musical fame. Decked out in colorful Christmas kitsch, Cindy Lou preps for a party in her trailer while sipping cocktails, spilling sordid secrets, flirting with audience members, and crooning a few Christmas tunes. It's definitely not rated G.
Although Who's Holiday! may sound like a departure for Lombardo, who's best known for the one-woman bio-plays Looped about Tallulah Bankhead and Tea at Five about Katharine Hepburn, it has a lot in common with those earlier works. "I like to write about women of a certain age who, well, are little crazy, a little delicately balanced, with seemingly insurmountable challenges in their lives who overcome and excel," Lombardo says. "So a middle-aged Cindy Lou Who falls into my wheelhouse!"
Of course this is the first time Lombardo has written an entire play in Seussian rhyming verse, but there's a reason it came fairly easily to him. "I have a big Sicilian family and whenever someone reaches a milestone, we do a poem for them," he says. "My uncle Frank actually started the tradition and when he passed away, I took over. It's usually something very funny or a little off-color."
Despite all the drama surrounding the comedy, Lombardo is glad Who's Holiday! is finally onstage, especially since he'll soon turn his attention to an upcoming Broadway production of Tea at Five with a retooled script. "Who's Holiday! was banging around the inside of my brain for years trying to come out," he says. "She's a naughty girl this one. She's sparkly, she's fun, and you've got to know when to leave her because she's going to keep drinking and gets a little nasty, but she has a good heart."
Top image: Lesli Margherita in Who's Holiday!. Photos by Carol Rosegg.