A Rubicon Family Christmas is back for a second year with most of its sensational 2008 cast intact, good tidings indeed for Ventura residents and Angelinos alike. Even better news for those who saw and loved last December’s concert (but may have reservations about seeing it a second time) is that almost half its songs are new for 2009, making this hour-and-a-half of holiday favorites must-see Christmas entertainment for absolutely everyone in search of holiday cheer. Though L.A. stages will soon be filled with A Christmas Carols and holiday-themed comedies galore, 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.

Returning for their second trip through SantaLand are Dina Bennett, Teri Bibb, Trey Ellett, Anthony Manough, and Brian Sutherland, with Rubicon favorite Joan Almedilla joining this sensational cast of Broadway and regional theater triple-threats.  Director/conceiver Brian McDonald has once again backed the show’s talented sextet with a dozen or so local kids, all of whom are accompanied this year by a terrific five-piece band under the musical direction of pianist/conductor/arranger Gerald Sternbach.  As they did last year, the resulting festivities make for two acts of the best-performed holiday songs you’re likely to hear all Christmas season.

Sternbach and company perform almost three dozen selections, everything 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).  The oh-so-talented Ventura kids join the grownups for “Frosty The Snowman” and “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” pre-teens Michael Kennedy and Alexis Skye Neumann perform a lovely “Pure Imagination,” and ready-in-a-few-year-for-American-Idol Heidi Bjorndahl and Kurt Kemper shine in an inspiring “Do You Hear What I Hear?”  For comedy, there’s the return of “Holi-Daze,” with the six adult cast members, cocktail glasses in hand, “drinking (their) way through the holidays.”

The adults get the lion’s share of the evening’s songs, from a late-1950s-inspired “White Christmas” (performed by the men in Drifters bebop mode) to Bibb’s inspiring “Oh, Holy Night,” to Ellett’s heartfelt “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” to Manough’s soft-jazzy “Christmas Time Is Here,” (backed by the entire cast), and for audience members of the Jewish persuasion, there’s the return of the infectious, R&B-inspired “Shine On” (a tribute to “Chanukah, the festival of lights”).

MacDonald has adroitly organized a dozen or so Christmas favorites into a pair of medleys (dubbed “Christmas Dreaming” and “Christmas Day”).  Act One features mostly pop favorites like “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” while Act Two spotlights traditional carols like “Silent Night.”

For this year’s Family Christmas, Sternbach and lyricist Lindy Robbins have  written the brand new “Baby You’re The Only One (Who Makes My Christmas Merry)” performed in suave three-part harmony by the ladies. A jazzy “Winter Wonderland” features all the adults joining voices a la The Ray Conniff Singers. Almedilla lends her rich, powerful alto to “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” Sutherland appears in full Elvis regalia to rock the house with “Santa Claus Is Back.” Bennett’s sultry voice is featured in a mini-medley of “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” and “Nature Boy,” the latter gaining whole new meaning in this Christmas context. “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” becomes a showcase for Sternbach’s piano artistry (and Sutherland’s rich baritone). The sextet of stars perform a stirring a cappella version of “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” which segueways into “The First Noel” (with a Kenny G-esque arrangement).  Ellett sings a gorgeous “River” and “In The Bleak Mid-Winter” (backed by Manough).  Bibb’s exquisite “Oh Holy Night” features piano snippets of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring,” an inspired counterpoint. A celestial-voiced Gabrielle Trainor performs a tear-inducing “Joy To The World (A Christmas Prayer),” originally sung by Nick Jonas.

The evening concludes with a rousing “Feliz Navidad,” featuring the entire cast, adults and kids alike, a grand finale which gets the audience to their feet wishing each other “Feliz Navidad, Prospero Ano Y Felicidad.”

This year’s Family Christmas gets a brand new set, a terrific design by the multi-talented MacDonald—white winter trees against a black sky backdrop. Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting provides one striking effect after another, one of the most memorable being the stark white light which announces the opening notes of “Hark The Herald Angels Sing,” stars then illuminating the nighttime sky as the light falling on the stage acquires a golden glow.  The cast’s six-part harmony in “The First Noel” is enhanced by a blending of blue, magenta, orange, and white lights shining down on the stage.  Costume designer Sheryl Jo Bedal garbs the cast in richly-hued satin for the first act, then in formal black-and-white evening wear for Act Two. Jonathan Burke’s sound design once again provides a perfect mix of voices and instruments.

I concluded my review of last year’s Christmas concert with the following words: 

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.

Ditto for 2009, and then some!

Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main Street, Ventura.

–Steven Stanley
December 5, 2009
                                                                                 Photos: Jeanne Tanner

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