'Riverside Christmas Spectacular' turns on the nostalgia this holiday season

By KATIE THISDELL FOR THE FREE LANCE-STAR | Nov 29, 2017

It’s the most magical time of the year at the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts.

Snow is falling onstage; songs like “O Holy Night,” “Silent Night” and just about every other Christmas classic you can think of is ringing out; and actors are even putting on a much-shortened rendition of the holiday favorite “A Christmas Carol.”

The “Riverside Christmas Spectacular” opened Wednesday to a sold-out audience, and it continues its seasonal run through Dec. 31.

“It’s an old Christmas TV special, a la the days of Bob Hope, Henry Mancini and Judy Garland,” said Grey Garrett, a Richmond actress who is making her Riverside début as Mimi King. “It feels like someone is coming into your living room.”

The show is a tribute to those Christmas TV and radio variety shows of yesteryear, featuring music, dancing and vignettes.

Patrick A’Hearn, Riverside’s producing artistic director, pulled inspiration from those specials of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s and also from the annual “Radio City Christmas Spectacular.” As a gift to the Riverside community, he co-wrote this year’s original show with Sherri Edelen, a local actress who also recently directed Riverside’s production of “On Golden Pond.” Choreography is by Stephanie Wood, and musical arrangements are by Paul Rawlins.

In her director’s note, Edelen writes how when there were just four channels to watch—ABC, NBC, CBS and PBS—everyone across the country was watching the same shows.

“Every year, I scanned the television listings to see when my favorite animated and Claymation holiday specials would air. How I waited for all these shows to reappear each season!” Edelen writes.

It was during those specials that families would gather around for an hour to enjoy the songs and dances. Today, she reflects on the message behind that tradition: “Gather your family together and love one another. Life goes by so fast.”

Today, that message still rings true. Art and theater present a chance to escape from the pressures and the challenges of the real world.

Kathy Halenda, who plays Vicki Valentine, said that Riverside’s show is a chance to simply enjoy the spirit of Christmas.

“I think you’ll walk away feeling really, really good,” said Halenda, who has become a regular in the cast at Riverside after doing about 10 shows. “There are tributes to the military and tributes to Christmas and to Santa. It will leave you feeling uplifted.”

A’Hearn had pitched the variety show idea a few times, and Riverside decided that this year—its 20th season—it was a go.

“I’m not inventing the wheel here,” said A’Hearn, who makes a cameo. “So many regional theaters and dinner theaters do this kind of thing at the holiday time.”

It’s hard to give a synopsis of the plot, since it is styled like a variety show. There are some songs, some dances, some vignettes. There is Celtic step dancing, some soft shoe, the jitterbug. Among the vignettes, one features a 10-minute version of “A Christmas Carol.”

An eight-piece orchestra onstage provides the music, and the stars of the show are modeled after some of those who put on old-fashioned specials.

Halenda, whose character is one of three featured singers, said that some of the show was a work in progress as rehearsals went along.

The main cast includes a host, a dancing couple, a studio announcer, carolers and Garrett’s character, Mimi King.

Garrett had met A’Hearn after she played Judy Garland in a show in Richmond. When he called to ask if she’d want to be in the “Riverside Christmas Spectacular,” she knew it’d be a great opportunity. Her character is somewhat of a Garland impersonator.

“I’ve done a lot of shows with an old Hollywood feel to them, so it’s right up my alley,” Garrett said.