BWW Review: I'LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS at Arvada Center

BROADWAY WORLD    11/17/2016

There's no place like home for the holidays, and the Arvada Center is making sure of that this holiday season. I'll Be Home for Christmas is making its debut at the Center, featuring a broad selection of local talent.

Directed by Gavin Mayer, this is a premiere for the Arvada Center featuring music and lyrics by resident music director David Nehls, who formerly penned the same for The Great American Trailer Park Musical. The book is by Kenn McLaughlin.

Set in 1969, the musical follows the behind-the-scenes action of the Bright family's yearly Christmas show, aired live on television, which they've been doing for years. Think of the kind of specials families used to huddle around for the holidays. It's a little warmer this year because Dana and Louise Bright (Noah Racey and Megan Van de Hey) are welcoming home their son, Simon (Jake Mendes), from war, where he was a decorated hero. Meanwhile, their activist daughter, Maggie (Kim McClay) is trying to modernize their special a bit. The Christmas variety show brings along bubbly personality Carol Marie (Sharon Kay White) and country crooner Len (Andrew Diessner). An array of debacles makes the night a bit more interesting than the family anticipated.

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The Arvada Center has developed and launched an all new, world premiere musical, and it's an instant holiday classic. I'll Be Home For Christmas, with original music by David Nehls, with several familiar musical chestnuts added in for good measure, is rock solid, family-friendly, nostalgic entertainment. Think of it as the White Christmasfor the boomer generation. Set in the tumultuous 1960s, this cherry and bright, sweet and sassy, sentimental show plays through Dec. 23.

It's December 1969, and the Bright Family has been America's beloved television family for more than twenty years. Song and dance couple Dana and Louise (Noah Racey and Megan Van De Hey) entertained the troops in Korea and came home to raise their kids under the watchful, all-seeing eye of the CBS logo, for weekly broadcasts and Christmas specials. Their son Simon (Jake Mendes) has just returned from Army service in Vietnam with no visible wounds, and their rebellious, anti-war protesting daughter Maggie (Kim McClay) wears mini skirts and smokes cigarettes.

Though their image is squeaky clean and wholesome Fifties fare, the times they are a changing, and the family must confront pressures from within and without--to either put on a false charade for the fans or just let it all hang out. There's plenty of hilarious "on the air" improvising until they figure things out, mostly during commercial breaks.

Joining the Brights in their larger than life home-style Christmas variety show are a Glen Campbell-type country western singer (Andrew Diessner) and a Rose Marie-esque middle-aged, man-hungry comedienne (Sharon Kay White). Oh, and an eager African American gypsy dancer from the chorus (Darius Jordan Lee) stands in for Simon when plans go awry during the live broadcast, adding yet another interesting angle to the awkwardness.

The jokes are as corny as anyone could hope for, the pathos is predictable but palatable, and the show feels just so darn comfortable...until it makes you squirm. Director Gavin Mayer knows when to speed things up and slow things down and elicits excellent performances from all. The setting is unique among Christmas shows, and the sense of period is palpable in the comic and serious moments, the music, the characters and the costumes. All of it feels just RIGHT.

The performers are superb, with every one of the seven leads perfectly cast, along with a young, beautiful, energetic and bouncy background chorus. Racey and White, in particular, seem especially at home in their roles. The decor is hilariously old-fashioned in its hipness, and Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck's choreography is spot on.

Many of Nehls' original songs are so good, he could sell an original cast soundtrack AND a holiday album with the same material. There's plenty of variety in this variety show, and the few familiar songs seem entirely appropriate. There's even a chance for the audience to sing along.

I'll Be Home For Christmas will be produced again and again, year after year. I'm sure of it. It already feels like I grew up watching the Bright Family Christmas Show as a kid, even though this is a world premiere production. I predict the next generation actually will.

Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesdays at 1:00 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m. through December 23. Preview performances are November 15, 16 and 17 at 7:30 p.m. Please note, there will not be a performance on Thursday, November 24 due to the Thanksgiving holiday. An additional performance will take place on Sunday, November 27 at 7:30 p.m.  Audience engagement events, including happy hours with the cast, are held through the run of the production. To purchase tickets go to https://arvadacenter.org/about-the-center/ill-be-home-for-christmas  or call 720-898-7200. The Arvada Center is located at 6901 Wadsworth Blvd and provides free parking for its patrons.

Based on the assumption that “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays,” a creative team has been working for nearly a year to bring “I’ll be Home for Christmas” to the stage at Arvada Center. This is the first time the Center has provided a world premiere of an original production. Book is by Kenn McLaughlin, with lyrics and original music by David Nehls. Some of the music includes familiar Christmas tunes – arranged to provide opportunity for excellent dancing. Gavin Mayer directed the show with Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck providing the choreography.

Premise is a successful TV entertainment family ready to tape their annual live Christmas Show. They have enjoyed success for many years appearing the “model American family.” The parents, Louise and Dana Bright, have been married for about 25 years, and feature their son and daughter in their family shows. The Arvada musical takes place in the television studio where the Bright Family Show is ready to be televised. This year’s version of their Christmas Show is to feature the entire family, a fictional next-door neighbor who is to provide comedy relief, and a popular Country Western star to give the show a little variety.

Problem is that the parents are questioning if they want to continue the popular wholesome family program. Their children aren’t happy being involved, and maybe it is time for the parents to move on with their lives. The show takes place in the 1960s when the nation was emerging from the idea that the ideal model American family might not be a reality. There are protests the Vietnam War. The fantasy the family has been presenting for so many years may have outlived its believability.

Megan Van De Hey and Noah Racey portray the parents. Van De Hey is clever as the on-camera smiler who can drop the façade when the spotlight fades. Racey is very good as a father who empathizes with the challenges the children are facing. He has great tap-dancing skills. The Brights have trained their children in the entertainment world, sometimes against the children’s desires.

Kim McClay plays the daughter, Maggie, who is not happy in the supposedly-cheerful family. She wants to choose what she wears, where she goes, etc. She is even protesting the Vietnam War. She is a very good dancer and singer. Maggie’s brother, Simon, has served in Vietnam, and has returned to the states a changed man. His parents want this year’s Christmas show to revolve around their son’s return home — showcasing the medal he won in combat. Simon wants to be left alone. Jake Mendes is especially good as Simon. His talents are underused. His “I’ll be Home for Christmas” is particularly rewarding

The cast is large and includes terrifically-talented performers. Supporting roles are headed by Darrius Jordan Lee as Sandy Carpenter, an orphan who is now a young adult. The Bright family have been his idols, as he watched their show faithfully while growing up. His desire is to be just like The Simon Bright he has admired forever. Andrew John Diessner is impressive as Len Ramble, the Country Western singer featured in the special. Sharon Kay White, a longtime favorite of Arvada audiences, turns up as the Bright’s neighbor, Carol Marie. Sheryl McCallum is new to Arvada Center and is effective as the television studio director.

The music is pleasant. It is the amazing dancing that moves the show along. Kitty Skillman Helsabeck’s show-stopping choreography is first rate. The First Night audience gave the performers an enthusiastic standing ovation. The production evidently touched many as a feel-good beginning to the Holiday Season

“I’ll Be Home for Christmas”
Where: Arvada Center. For the Arts and Humanities
6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, CO 80003
When: To December 23, 2016
Box Office 720/898-7200
Website:  www.arvadacenter.org

The current production, "I'll Be Home for Christmas," is an original musical that features music and lyrics by David Nehls, who has been the Arvada Center's music director for many, many years. The book (story/dialogue) was written by Kenn McLaughlin. Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck created the inventive choreography. This is the first time a production has been conceived and produced by the talented personnel at the Arvada Center. This is a very ambitious undertaking ... and it paid off. Kudos to Arvada Center Artistic Producer (Musicals) Rod A. Lansberry for supporting this venture.

The story takes us back to 1969, and the Bright family is preparing for their annual Christmas show, a highly anticipated national television event. When the show began, I thought, "This is going to be completely formulaic. It will be easy to predict and the tunes will sound like every other holiday song." I am delighted to say I was completely wrong. As the story unfolded, it turned out to be fresh and unexpected. I couldn't predict what would happen next. And the music was unexpectedly refreshing and creative.

The parents Noah Racey (dad/Dana) and Megan Van De Hey (mom/Louise), along with Kim McClay (daughter/Maggie), are greatly missing their son/brother Jake Mendes (Simon). Now here's where I began to think, "I've seen this before ... Simon arrives to surprise the family for Christmas." But from then on, the story takes unexpected twists and turns and I found myself completely engrossed in a brand new experience.

The talented cast is directed by Gavin Mayer (whom I first met when he was the drama coach at Pomona High School). The clever set by Brian Mallgrave created the tone of a live radio broadcast. The costumes by Samantha R. De La Fuente-Menche were quintessential 1969.

This is must-see theater. "I'll Be Home for Christmas," runs through Dec. 23. The show is wonderful for the whole family. For tickets and info, call 720-898-7200 or visit www.arvadacenter.

© 2019 David Nehls