A Rockwell Christmas

Looking for an infusion of Christmas spirit? Sincerity, exuberance, strong voices and impassioned singing make A Rockin' Christmas at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center just the potion you need. As director/conceiver Claude McNeal has demonstrated in past cabarets — particularly in the stunning Swing! Swing! Swing! audiences are more easily moved when performers seem convinced of the urgency of their roles. And sure enough, these Rockin' performers deliver their songs with utter conviction, as if peace on Earth and goodwill toward men were just waiting for a sufficiently heartfelt invitation.

You won't discover anything new in A Rockin' Christmas — nostalgia dominates, and Norman Rockwell might as well be the honorary artist — but you will encounter some deep emotions, and even some old-fashioned patriotism, rendered without a touch of irony. If the holidays to you mean sentiment and warm memories, this is your show. And at intermission, Grandpa the war hero can explain about "I'll be Home for Christmas."

The first act of Rockin' Christmas is all about Christmases in the 1940s and '50s, from the entry of the U.S. into World War II to the reign of Elvis and "Jingle Bell Rock." Michael A. Chamoun's attractive Act One set, half homey interior, half frosty exterior, provides an evocative backdrop as the show's five singers — Jonathan Harrison, John Vincent Leggio, Maggie Lynn Held, Colleen McDonnell and Kissy Simmons — begin with wartime melodies and eventually find their way to the innocently boisterous songs of the Eisenhower years.

As they sing, relevant slides are projected onto a large screen, back of center stage: scenes of soldiers and sailors, of Churchill and Ike. Many of the songs are chestnuts — "I'll Be Seeing You" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," for example. But there's an occasional surprise, as when Simmons sings about the problem of finding a man in a population depleted by the draft. They're "Either Too Old or Too Young." The pivot of the act is the Stan Collins/Claude McNeal song "Coming Home Again": "Just how long we've been away, we'll never know/ But then, we as one are coming home again." And then it's the 1950s, and Harrison, sporting an Elvis-black wig, is singing "Blue Christmas" and the female performers, all with big, big hair, are crooning in perfect three-part harmony. It's a little silly, yes, but it's fun and even a relief after the serious undertones of the wartime tunes.

Act Two isn't quite as interesting. In the first part of the act, the performers are dressed like children and pretend — not very entertainingly — to be too infantile to get their songs quite right. As if this shtick weren't inane enough, we in the audience are asked to participate in "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer," making antlers with our hands each time the word "reindeer" is sung, and pointing to our noses each time the word "nose" is intoned. Fortunately, this foolishness finally passes and the performers move on to some genuinely clever holiday songs, including "The Twelve Pains of Christmas" and "Santa Brought Me Prozac This Year."

Matters get serious again with "God Help the Outcast" and an emotional rendering of "Peace On Earth" in counterpoint with "The Little Drummer Boy." And finally, the unspoken inspiration of the show's patriotic moments — the Sept. 11 disaster — comes to the fore with a reprise of "Coming Home Again" and slides of firefighters and policemen at Ground Zero. At this moment, A Rockin' Christmas becomes, of all things, a fine example of political theater, and a testament to the unifying nature of theater itself. This is a genuinely powerful finale.

And these are talented singers. First among equals is Simmons, who's about to join the touring company of The Lion King, and whose charismatic presence seems almost too big for the Jaeb stage. But the other performers are also fine. I've never heard McDonnell sing better, and Harrison once again shows himself to be a solid, emotionally convincing performer. Because there's not very much dancing, it's hard to evaluate Leggio's contribution as choreographer; but Rick Criswell's myriad costumes are witty and colorful, and the three-piece band of Stan Collins, Dean Laber and Richard Redcay couldn't be better.

McNeal's direction, as usual, is about energy, passion and the actors' relationship with the audience; the night I saw the show, the audience signaled its approval with applause, cheers and, where appropriate, hearty laughter.

And now: a thought out of season. Yes, A Rockin' Christmas aims to be nostalgic, sentimental and, at times, heart-stirring. And yes, it mostly achieves these aims. But must a Christmas show always be so backward-looking, so lacking in innovation and up-to-the-minute thinking? Aside from the references to Sept. 11 and a few novelty songs in Act Two, this show is as resolutely retro in its way as A Christmas Carol, Nutcracker or Handel's Messiah. And I can't help but wonder, would it really be so difficult to present a Christmas show about now, about the world in 2001? Granted, the holiday evokes Currier and Ives, Thomas Nast, Charles Dickens and O. Henry — but isn't some sort of innovation possible anyway? Even while enjoying A Rockin' Christmas, I was conscious that it seemed to be aimed particularly at the elderly, at theatergoers who were 20 in 1951 and are 70 now. Is this a testament to canny marketing, or is it a failure of imagination?

Maybe it's the wrong question. Christmas and nostalgia go hand in hand, and A Rockin' Christmas milks this common combo with notable success. And these singers are tip-top.

Maybe that's enough.

Rock Op by Popp. A local favorite returns to the Tampa Bay area when Joe Popp's rock musical Maxwell comes to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center Jan. 4-20 in a Jobsite Theater production. After the Tampa engagement, the show moves to the Galapagos Art Space in New York City.

Maxwell tells the story of Joseph Maxwell, a genius who, under the tutelage of Stephen Hawking, invents a machine that can do all types of human work. Problem is, this doesn't leave much for humans; and finally they rise up against Maxwell and his invention.

Popp himself recorded all the show's music; styles include rock, cow-punk, gospel and even Broadway. The show's cast includes David M. Jenkins, Ami Sallee Corley and Chris Holcom, among others.

Maxwell plays at the Shimberg Playhouse Jan. 4-20. Show times are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 4 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $15, $12 students. Call 813-229-STAR.

Mark E. Leib can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 305.

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