There'll be no "Bah! Humbug!" at Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse, which is celebrating the season with a warm, friendly and memory-evoking variety evening called "Christmas at the Playhouse."
The play has very much the tone of a family gathered around a brightly lighted tree, reminiscing and singing, to the best of their ability, most of the old favorite carols and seasonal standards.
Director Larry Watts doesn't do much that's innovative in the show, yet he keeps the melodies flowing briskly and frames the action with a gentle glow. His staging of a holiday party is derivative and bland, but with his audience-friendly cast he holds a heartfelt hand out to welcome the season.
A big chunk of the company is as uninspired as the staging, and often their voices are lost behind the music. But there are several fine singers among the group.
Michael Keeney's rock number "You'd Better Shop Around," with the male ensemble members, is funny and energetic, and James Emery stands out with "Home for the Holidays" and several other numbers. Emery's baritone is effective and never lost in the shuffle.
Particularly sparkling and outstanding in several numbers, from "Nine to Five" to "The First Noel," is Nicole Peek. The underused Johnny Gillies, with a good, sure vocal sound, stands out and provides the highlight of the evening as Santa's elf, complete with funny elf voice, which morphs into faux-Crosby wearing a fedora in "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town."
Also underused is another excellent vocalist, Mark Phillips, who makes points with "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and should have been given more. Damien Lorton's Santa, beginning with "C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S" and winding up with "(What's the Matter With) Kids (Today)" from "Bye-Bye Birdie," gets its laughs easily. Angel Batsel scores impressively with "Three Days Left Till Christmas" and "What Child Is This?"
Ensemble Numbers Are a Strong Point
The company is at its strongest in the ensemble numbers, and their blend shows a wise choice of voices, even if some of them are weak in solo spots. The sound fills the theater with a rich body and fine ensemble diction, particularly in the evening's strongest number, "The Little Drummer Boy." A special short appearance is made by some very young students who are adorable, though rarely together on their carols, except for the buoyant, crowd-pleasing "Feliz Navidad."
* "Christmas at the Playhouse," Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse, 661 Hamilton Ave. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Dec. 20. $15. (949) 650-0652. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
A Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse Christmas variety show. Directed by Larry Watts. With Angel Batsel, Marisa Copeland, James Emery, Megan Endicott, Johnny Gillies, Michael Jon Keeney, Damien Lorton, Nicole Peek, Mark Phillips, Lynn Reinert, Natalie Copeland, Quinn Murphy, Rachel and Matthew Reinert. Scenic design: Helen Fearon, Vera Zuckett. Costumes: Tom Phillips, Larry Watts. Stage managers: John and Verleen Vanamber.