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'The Latina Christmas Special': Love and laughter through three women's family tales

'The Latina Christmas Special': Love and laughter through three women's family tales
Diana Yanez, left, Maria Russell and Sandra Valls star in "The Latina Christmas Special." (Los Angeles Theatre Center)

Shortly after the lights go up on "The Latina Christmas Special," you may experience a slight sense of disorientation. Indeed, the tone of the show is so low-key and intimate, you feel as though you wandered into a backstage party intended only for family.

As it quickly becomes apparent, that feeling is completely appropriate to the occasion. The show, produced by the Latino Theater Company at Los Angeles Theatre Center, takes the form of a highly personal and colorful Christmas celebration, replete with fractious relatives, disappointing presents and enough food to feed a small city. Call it "A Christmas Memory" with tamales.

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The show stars creator Diana Yanez and her co-writers, Maria Russell and Sandra Valls. This is the third season the women have performed the piece but the first with a director, Geoffrey Rivas, whose comically crisp staging highlights his cast's considerable appeal.

Yanez, Russell and Valls all play themselves in what are essentially three extended monologues. Rear projections from actual family archives -- assembled in Yee Eun Nam's crucial video/projection design -- further enliven the action.

Classically trained dancer Russell starts off the fun with her impersonations of her hyper-histrionic Mexican mom and stoical Lithuanian dad. Dryly sardonic Yanez follows with an account of growing up as a first-generation Cuban in Miami, where Christmas has its own sunbaked flair. A talented singer-pianist, Valls hilariously recapitulates her experiences growing up gay in a traditional Mexican family before seguing into a moving account of caring for her terminally ill mother.

The tone varies between the hilarious and the heart-wrenching, but most strikingly, the show is a loving homage to the performers' mothers -- feisty, funny Latina women with their own high spirits and distinctive styles -- a legacy carried on, in this very special "Special," by their talented daughters.

"The Latina Christmas Special," Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Jan. 7-9, 3 p.m. Jan. 10. $30. (866) 811-4111. www.thelatc.org. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

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