Riverside's Christmas Spectacular is guaranteed to fill your holiday with joy

By EMILY JENNINGS THE FREE LANCE–STAR

Already spectacularly popular, the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts’ “Christmas Spectacular” is destined to become a favorite for holiday seasons to come.

Running now through Dec. 31, audiences are loving this variety show of Christmas classics, with echoes of Radio City’s “Christmas Spectacular” in its liveliness and verve.

Newly written by Patrick A’Hearn and Sherri L. Edelen, Riverside’s “Christmas Spectacular” is also co-directed by the pair. A’Hearn is in his seventh year as producing artistic director at the Center, and seasoned actress Edelen returns to Riverside after directing “On Golden Pond” there this fall and “Steel Magnolias” in 2014.

The show is loosely patterned after radio and TV Christmas specials from the 1950s and ’60s, complete with an “ON AIR” sign that lights up over one side of the sage, and another prompting “APPLAUSE” on the other.

The radio show host, a fictional James Goodman, is played by Alan Hoffman, a Riverside stalwart whose power as a performer provides the thread that holds the show’s tapestry together.

Observers can’t help but be delighted by this nimble line-up delivering Christmas cheer, with a mix of carols, songs of Santa, instrumentals, and various nostalgic vignettes following one after the other with rapid-fire reliability.

From the first soaring bars of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” the audience is convinced that’s true, as each new song invites happiness, wistfulness, amazment and joy.

Some of Riverside’s favorite performers—Kathy Halenda and Sheri Hayden, for example, in addition to Hoffman—line up next to others appearing at Riverside for the first time, such as Grey Garrett, who most recently played the title role in “Lysistrata” in Richmond.

Garrett’s renditions of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “Jingle Bell Rock” are a highlight, as is her duet with Hoffman, “Baby It’s Cold Outside.”

Arrangements of about 40 songs were made by Paul Rawlins and accompanied by seven instrumentalists. Costumes are lavish and bright, giving the show an eye-popping quality, and the backdrops of snowy town scenes, country landscapes and the night sky lend depth.

Choreography by Stephanie Wood contributes just the right mix of excitement and nostalgia to each number, with a mix of riverdance, soft shoe, swing, ballet and quickstep.

In addition to the music, an abbreviated version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is performed in classic radio style, with sound effects, cute commercials, and actors playing multiple roles.

A centerpiece of the production is a tribute to those serving our country in the military who are far away from their families during the Christmas season. Letters from soldiers to their loved ones are read intermittently during the song “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

No Christmas production could be complete without children, and the youth ensemble in this production delivers all the innocent magic an audience could desire with their talent and energy.

One of the six children, Willow Kent, delights in a dreamy “Toyland” number with 12 toy soldiers that tap dance together, after which tiny Kent blows them all down like so many dominoes with a trumpet.

Each time the children appear the stage brightens with songs like “Somebody Snitched On Me,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and “Frosty the Snowman.”

Beginning at 7:30 p.m. and lasting till nearly 10 p.m., there’s no shortage of musical entertainment, all of it guaranteed to give even the gloomiest Grinch a change of heart.

From White Christmas’ “The Best Things Happen When You’re Dancing” to a heartfelt “O Holy Night,” Riverside’s Christmas Spectacular will keep you feeling the Christmas spirit far into the new year.