When I was a kid, my Decembers were brightened and my holiday spirit heightened by much-anticipated yearly TV Christmas specials, hosted by Andy Williams, Perry Como, and Dinah Shore, sponsored by Kraft Foods, and “brought to you in living color on NBC.”  The Rubicon Theatre brings back those days with its lovingly conceived and terrifically performed A Rubicon Family Christmas.  Though L.A. stages are currently filled to the brim with A Christmas Carols and holiday themed comedies, the Rubicon is the place to go for music of the season, especially as performed by six of the finest musical theater talents the Southland has to offer.

And what a cast it is!

Dina Bennett, Teri Bibb, Trey Ellett, Anthony Manough, Natalie Nucci, and Brian Sutherland.  It doesn’t get better than that!

Director/conceiver Brian McDonald has backed this sextet of Broadway and regional theater stars with a dozen or so local kids accompanied by a tip-top four-piece band conducted by musical director/pianist Steven Cahill. The result is an hour and a half of the best-performed holiday songs you’re likely to hear all Christmas season.

Cahill’s arrangements add pizzazz to every number, from new songs like the jazzy “St. Nick Swing” to classics like “Angels We Have Heard On High” with a background beat that recalls Rent’s “Santa Fe,” to a soulful R&B “Christmas Time Is Here,” to a Lion King-inspired “Do You Hear What I Hear?” (featuring the entire cast shaking and rattling African percussion instruments).

There are also ample comedic treats, such as the gals complaining that “Something Must Be Wrong With My Mistletoe” (“cause there’s nothing wrong with me”) or impish fourth-grad charmer Xander Young’s musical explanation of why he’s getting “Nuttin For Christmas” (“I’m gettin’ nuttin’ for Christmas ‘cause I ain’t been nuttin’ but bad”) or the six adults, cocktail glasses in hand, boasting that “We’re drinking our way through the holidays” in the Act One finale “Holi-Daze.”

Talented Ventura high school 10th-grader Gabrielle Trainor belts out Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” one of the best and catchiest new Christmas tunes of the past fifteen years, while the rest of the elementary, middle, and high schoolers do all-around remarkable backup work, 11-year-old Kurt Kemper (a pre-teen Sam Harris) a particular standout.

But it’s the pros that get the lion’s share of the evening’s songs, and what splendid performances they give, from Bennett’s lovely “White Christmas,” to Bibb’s inspiring “Ave Maria,” to Ellett’s heartfelt “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” to Manough’s soft-jazzy “Christmas Time Is Here,” to Sutherland’s nostalgic “The Christmas Song,” and for audience members of the Jewish persuasion, Nucci belts out a rhythmic “Shine On” (a tribute to “Chanukah, the festival of lights”).

MacDonald has adroitly organized the nearly four dozen Christmas favorites into medleys, including a Christmas Dreaming medley, a Christmas Day Medley, and a Drummer Boy Medley, as well as full length performances. Act One features pop favorites (“Winter Wonderland,” “Jingle Bells,” “Sleigh Ride”) while Act Two spotlights traditional carols (“Hark The Herald Angels Sing,” “Silent Night”) and a few contemporary inspirational tunes such as “When You Believe” (from The Prince Of Egypt).  The entire cast reunites post curtain calls for the infectious Act Two closer, “Feliz Navidad.”

Cate Caplin has choreographed several delightful dance sequences showcasing the cast’s footwork, and Cahill (a StageSceneLA favorite sound designer) proves himself a true Renaissance man with his splendid work on the piano and his harmonic musical arrangements.

Kurt Boetcher’s set design reflects a particularly Southern California fantasy image of a “White Christmas,” one reminiscent of “snow”-flocked L.A. Christmas trees or Lake Arrowhead’s Santa’s Village, with cast members decked out for a Southland “winter” in satins and silk designed by Abra Flores. Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting colorizes the snow-white set (even the grand piano is white) to fit each song, and Jonathan Burke’s sound design makes for a perfect blend of band and vocalists.

Anyone in search of an instant dose of Christmas spirit need look no further than A Rubicon Family Christmas, the best and brightest live “Holiday Special” in town.

Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main Street, Ventura.

–Steven Stanley
December 11, 2008
Photos: Tiffany Israel

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