It’s a Swell Christmas Party at the Ridgefield Theater Barn

Doodlin' with Lauren Gulliver Travers, Musical Director Lisa Riggs Hobbs, and Monica Harrington
Not the indoor, plastic birdbath! L-R: Michael Valinoti, Lisa Riggs Hobbs, and Heather Abrado
They couldn't be cuter! Chris Balestriere and Rachel Lewis
Marilyn Olsen: the latest in a line of Mrs. Clauses?
Duane Lanham, Michael Valinoti, and some what-cha-ma-call-its


“A lovely thing about Christmas,” Garrison Keillor once said, “is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together." In RTB’s Super Nifty Holiday Bash directed by Deb Failla, it’s a snowstorm, and thankfully the whole party emerges safely and merrily for its final bow. The Ridgefield Theater Barn’s last show of 2022 is a Christmas (not “holiday,” as, save for some paper Judaica ornaments on a Christmas tree, no other winter celebrations are included) musical revue disguised as a comedic play with songs and, despite some anachronistic costume choices and vocal styles, painted with a swingin’ 50s flair. Eight wonderful performers, one of whom is the show’s writer Duane Lanham as resident roysterer Charles Whitmer, and three equally wonderful musicians, including musical director Lisa Riggs Hobbs at the piano and the uncredited (insert vexed face here) drummer and upright bassist, spin seventeen cute and quirky Christmas songs from all decades and genres and tuck them into a superfluous plot.


The set up is simple enough: a Christmas party at the home of Doris and Don Campbell. They’ve hired a jazz trio that doesn’t speak, a pair of bumbling caterers who half-heartedly do, and have to entertain the only guests who have shown up, and said guests either have no idea who the hosts are or do and carry on in a most untoward manner. And amidst all of this, there is a blizzard. Luckily, every stinkin’ one of these revelers, including the band, can more than carry a tune and deliver every song–be it traditional Christmas carol, novelty song, or Broadway showstopper–with full hearts, strong voices, and coordinated feet.


I will try to avoid driving my sleigh through the humongous holes in the plot because it’s Christmas and no one needs an angry elf. Instead, I invite you to bring your wassail and figgy pudding to enjoy the musicality of this production.


From the start, the cast, adorned with “ugly” Christmas sweaters (which are adorable–Centaur Santa? Absolutely!) carol ecstatically at our hosts: Heather Abrado as Doris and Michael Valinoti as Don, who kick off the show with Allan Sherman’s “The Twelve Gifts of Christmas,” outlining all of the wacky, tacky gifts that can’t wait to be regifted next year (although who doesn’t want a Japanese transistor radio? It’s a Nakashuma!). From here, Abrado takes vocal flight with a delicious, uncontainably contemporary treatment of “(Everybody’s Waitin’ for) The Man with the Bag” by Irving Taylor, Dudley Brooks, and Hal Stanley, with riffs and runs and scoops and slides. You can’t wait until she is featured in another solo, and when she crafts “That’s What I Want for Christmas” by Earl Lawrence, it is pure heaven to experience.


Next, though, comes one of the more jarring instances of character implausibility as Marilyn Crough Olsen as Gloria Gooseby delivers “Surabaya Santa,” one of composer Jason Robert Brown’s distinctly batty torch songs from his musical revue, Songs for a New World. It’s comedically melodramatic, and somehow Olsen has to force it into a realistic vehicle for unapologetically trying to seduce Don in front of Doris–a woman who has demonstrated that she is secure, confident, and takes absolutely no mess. Well, now the script says she has to and it makes not a lick of sense. Olsen steers the song expertly and her lyrical style still manages to sit well in the beltier portions of the tune. When she later joins Lanham in “Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun” by Irving Berlin, she gains character likability points and they pal their way through the song with glee and gusto.


Beginning the inevitable two-act love story between the only young singletons (who have landed at this party despite knowing almost nobody), is the charming “You Couldn’t Be Cuter” by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields. Chris Balestriere as Steven Stephens introduces his interest in Rachel Lewis as Edna Flatly with this sweet duet that sets up a four song romance arc. The prescribed “I Want” (or in this case, “I Don’t Want”) song is Lewis’s “Never Fall in Love with an Elf” from Elf: the Musical by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, which is meant to convey Edna’s resistance to opening her heart to Steven. Lewis handles the song beautifully despite it being a poor dramaturgical choice for Edna’s conflict, leaving the audience (and Steven) more than a little befuddled. The arc crests with Balestriere’s “Christmas is,” and resolves in the duet “A Place Called Home” from the musical, A Christmas Carol, by Alan Menken and Lynn Ahrens. Here, Lewis takes the lead and the pair gracefully develop the song into the couple’s next steps.


In pure performing enjoyment, the rest of the songs showcase the harmonic ease of assorted duets and trios, including Abrado’s mezzo swing and Olsen’s soprano lilt sharing verses on “A Hand for Mrs. Claus” by Frozen composers Robert and Kristin Anderson-Lopez. There are goofy giggles in Johnny Mercer’s “The Whatcha-Ma-Call It,” where Lanham and Valinoti tipsy tumble through the spirited lyrics while imbibing spirited spirits; Lanham impressively crafts a correct Manhattan cocktail in the process. Abrado, Olsen, and Lewis invoke true theatrical delight with an impeccable Andrews Sisters’ homage in “The Christmas Tree Angel.” Perhaps the most charming is “A Doodlin’ Song” by Carolyn Leigh and Cy Coleman, featuring the cutest soft shoe routine by Lauren Gulliver Travers as “Head Caterer” and Monica Harrington as “Assistant Caterer,” choreographed by Kelly Nayden.The caterers seem to serve as (mostly) silent jesters characterized by cheesy slapstick and exaggerated gags, and they nudge the action along with madcap predicaments that warrant the only special effects in the show. It is a joy to watch them play out their own tertiary story so sweetly to the band’s bouncy arrangement.


Speaking of arrangements, the company’s delivery of classic carols “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen/ We Three Kings” as arranged by the Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan, and “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” are fully steeped in Christmas magic. The RTB’s Super Nifty Holiday Bash runs until December 16 and 17 at 8PM and December 18 at 2PM, 2022 at the Ridgefield Theater Barn, 37 Halpin Lane, Ridgefield, Connecticut. Doors open one hour before showtime, and seats are cabaret-style so the audience may bring a picnic-type meal to enjoy prior to curtain. Seats are limited, so get thee to ridgefieldtheaterbarn.org or call the box office at 203-431-9850 to claim your ticket to holiday cheer. For more information, email the box office at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .


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