Free Lance-Star Review: Riverside rocks the holiday classics in 'A Rockabilly Christmas'

If you’re looking for Christmas, you’ll find it—and a lot more—at Riverside Center for the Performing Arts. This month, the dinner theater is cranking up the holiday cheer with “A Rockabilly Christmas.” And it has recruited some of your favorite Riverside faces like Ian Lane, Sheri Hayden and Kadejah Oné. But the show’s biggest gift to audiences is Todd Meredith and the Rave-Ons, and their high-voltage energy and concert theatrics.

“A Rockabilly Christmas” is a roller coaster musical revue of all your beloved holiday songs, everything from the exuberant “Run, Run, Rudolph” show-opener to the moving tribute to the military “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Looking pretty sharp in their suits, the band—featuring singer-guitarists Meredith and Jeremy Renner, bassist Jacob Callis and drummer Mike Lucchetti—all turn in a playful and supercharged performance, and their enthusiasm is contagious. Last Thursday’s audience may not have been dancing in the aisles, but there was definitely some jingling action going on in those seats.

We’ve all heard these songs on repeat on the radio during this time of year, but the singers and musicians put their own stamp on these classics in this hometown-inspired setting dreamed up by Kendall Khan. The production is a co-creation by Meredith, Renner and producing artistic director Patrick A’Hearn, who also directs the show. Meredith and Renner—who’s responsible for the musical arrangements—previously appeared in “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” at the theater a few years back.

“A Rockabilly Christmas” is a highly entertaining grab bag of holiday and non-holiday songs and styles, ranging from the obvious to bluegrass and country to gospel. It also includes a tribute to Buddy Holly plus appearances from musical legends like the Big Bopper, Patsy Cline, Elvis Presley and Ritchie Valens. Ryan Jagru is delightful to watch as both the young hip-shaking heartthrob (countered by Lane’s older white jump-suited Elvis in “Blue Christmas”) and the Latino rock star, who died at 17 in the famous 1959 plane crash with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper.

One of the show’s best musical numbers is “O Holy Night,” a quiet tune featuring only keyboard accompaniment by Angela Donadio. Sung by Oné, Hayden and Lane, this heavenly piece provides the show’s emotional center—with injections of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” elevating the performance. It’s also refreshing to hear Lane’s gorgeous voice in its purest form without him wearing a crazy costume getup.

Another highlight comes from a song with no words, just Meredith and the Rave-Ons tearing up the stage with their blistering surf-rock rendition of “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.”

Child performers Mitchell Austin and Temperance Mila Barbour, both seen recently in “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” at Riverside, add some cuteness to the show, whether they’re dancing around the Christmas tree or singing “Silent Night” and “Where Are You, Christmas?”

Oné, who can really knock a song out of the ’Burg with her incredible pipes—“Joy to the World” for example, has the challenging role of playing the show’s host and guiding audiences from one song to the next. Unfortunately, some of the transitions are a little rough around the edges. There are also a few flat jokes like the Big Bopper bit where Lane can’t seem to get out of his character. One of the funnier moments comes with the kids talking about “Die Hard” as a favorite Christmas movie.

But you’re not coming for the jokes and skits. The musical performances are the main attraction of “A Rockabilly Christmas.” And if you’re going to throw a holiday party, invite Todd Meredith and the Rave-Ons.