If Madea comes calling, Chief Justice Michael Stailey is on an extended leave of absence.
You don't know dysfunction until you've spent the holidays with Madea's extended family.
Facts of the Case
It's a quiet Christmas on Cape Cod for the Mansell family. In fact, John (Maurice Lauchner, The Cosby Show) and Lillian (Chandra Currelley-Young, Diary of a Mad Black Woman) have readied their vacation home in anticipation of their daughter China's (Tamar Davis) arrival, on semester break from Brown University. This visit could be quite momentous, in that she is bringing her boyfriend (Shannon Williams)—a very well-to-do young man, from a prestigious New England family—home to meet her parents. If all goes as Lillian plans, they will be celebrating their holidays and planning a wedding. Of course, nothing goes according to plan. The Mansell's housekeeper, Margaret (Cheryl Pepsii Riley, Madea Goes to Jail), has been forced to abandon her holiday plans and work the entire weekend. This doesn't sit well with headstrong China. Margaret practically raised China as her own, and she knows how important that family is to her. So she invites Margaret's family to spend the holidays with the Mansells…without telling anyone. Imagine their surprise when Madea (Tyler Perry, I, Alex Cross), Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis, Madea's Big Happy Family), and Margaret's kids (Tony Grant, Alexis Jones, and Jeffery Lewis) show up at the front door on Christmas Eve, and are forced to spend the night thanks to a blinding snowstorm. Throw in a wacky elderly cook and a closet full of family secrets, and the more certainly ain't the merrier.
In the 1930s and '40s, the stars of radio each had their own Christmas specials—Jack Benny, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Great Gildersleeve, Abbott and Costello—a mix of comedic holiday storylines, combined with special guests, and musical numbers. That tradition carried over to television in the 1950s, '60s, and even the '70s, with the likes of Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Perry Como, and Dean Martin. Though the format faded into obscurity, Tyler Perry has relit that torch with A Madea Christmas.
This being my first foray into the world of Mr. Perry, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. His empire was built upon wildly successful stage plays being turned into big box office movies, most of which prominently featured his larger than life alter-ego Madea. From the polarizing audience reactions, it seems Tyler's shows run hot and cold with people; you either get his brand of entertainment or you don't. I certainly understand and respect what he's trying to do, but for as much as A Madea Christmas works, there's just as much that doesn't.
I bring up the classic radio and TV Christmas special format, because that's essentially how the show plays out. You take your core characters, in this case Madea and Aunt Bam, put them in a foreign and potentially incendiary situation, and watch the fireworks fly. Here you have the stereotypical impoverished African-American family (think Good Times) forced to the spend the holiday with highly successful African-American family (think The Jeffersons, complete with a sassy over-the-top maid) and things are bound to turn ugly. It's hard enough spending the holidays with your own family, let alone a houseful of strangers whose way of life you can't possibly understand. Naming your kids China and Japan because that's where they were conceived? There's a good 15 minutes of comedy material. Employing a maid you can't fire because she's the mistress of Mr. Mansell's late father and her security is mandated by his will? More comedy. Having the beautiful rich girl with the picture perfect fiancee still be in love with the housekeeper's less than reputable son? You see where I'm going with this. Throw in five or six musical numbers (which may or may not drive the plot forward) and you have a two and a half hour, crowd pleasing show.
Perry does nothing to change the classic formula. He doesn't have to: comedy + drama + religious wisdom + musical numbers = guaranteed entertainment. It's become his stock in trade. In fact, where most Equity stage shows take 4-8 weeks to launch a production, Perry's team takes only two. Two weeks to build and light the set, rehearse the cast, stage the musical numbers, and promote the show. I'm not sure whether that's ambition or insanity. Either way, it works. The version of the show you'll see here is what I assume to be their first preview performance (if Perry even does previews). The reason I say that is because you will see from the blooper reel that there were countless stops and starts to cover line flubs, cast corpsing (unstoppable laughter), and directional changes. Perry also tells the audience they are the first people to see this production. It's a ballsy move and—thanks to some deft editing—the story plays. There are a couple of moments where you'll wonder what happened between scenes, but just go with it. In the long run, it doesn't matter.
Credit where credit is due, A Madea Christmas will make you laugh and make you think. Perry's mouthy Madea is a master at cutting people down with whip smart insults, but does her penance by sharing insightful wisdom and Christian guidance with the people who need it most. The rest of the cast is a mixed bag of veteran stage comediennes (Cassi Davis matches Perry step-for-step as Aunt Bam; Patrice Lovely is beyond insane as Hattie the cook), powerful vocalists (Chandra Currelley-Young plays an evil bitch with the voice of a soul goddess; Maurice Lauchner isn't believable as the Mansell patriarch but damn if he can't belt out a tune), and sincere performers (Perry ensemble veterans Cheryl Pepsii Riley and Tony Grant; newcomers Tamar Davis and Alexis Jones). This isn't likely to become annual Christmas viewing, but it easily slides into this year's holiday schedule.
Presented 1.78:1/1080p high definition widescreen, the transfer is what you'd expect from a digital recording of a high quality stage show. Video director Derrick Doose positioned his team to capture all the action and editor Michael Carr trimmed all the fat to make it appear that you are seeing a highly polished production. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio won't impress you with its dialogue (though everything is crystal clear), but the musical numbers swell to fill the room, thanks in part to the talents of composer Elvin Ross and musical director Ronnie Garrett.
In terms of bonus material, A Madea Christmas (Blu-ray) offers up a brief making-of featurette, the aforementioned blooper reel (which rips Tony Grant a new one), and a touching series of interviews with the cast on their own family Christmas experiences.
I give Tyler Perry all the credit in the world. He has embraced his calling, found his audience, and continues to deliver high quality entertainment. A Madea Christmas could have benefitted from an additional week or two of fine tuning and a touch of self-restraint, but it entertains and enlightens nonetheless. And when it comes to Madea, you take what you're given and like it.
Ho-Ho-Who you callin' a Ho?!
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