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Weight and Warmth
by Erie Times News Contributing writer Floyd Lawrence

Five actors share the stage in the Riverside Inn's "Christmas Wishes," its annual holiday show, and their performances are quite commendable.

But, as is the case with any musically oriented production, even the best of performers can't please an audience without benefit of good tunes and arrangements, an interesting story and catchy lyrics, and a director who knows how to draw the best from his cast.

"Christmas Wishes" succeeds in all areas. Charles Corritore's original story clearly traces the interconnectedness in the lives of four people -- five if you count a drop-in from a really distant place -- who find themselves taking refuge in a roadside diner during a Christmas Eve snowstorm.

The first act establishes the background of characters we must come to care about. This leads to some inevitable slowness in the first half hour of the Riverside's show. But well before the dinner-theater crowd has been served its intermission dessert, they're hooked.

The second half is a real triumph, with revelations and resolutions galore lending the show considerable emotional weight and warmth.

Sure, we might be able to guess the nature of some of those revelations from a few hints in the first act. But that doesn't diminish their real punch when they arrive.

What's more, Corritore's lyrics for the original music and arrangements of some classic Christmas tunes are clear and unpretentious, minimally sentimental, and in keeping with holiday spirits that can bring both joy and sadness. For instance, "It's a hard time of year ... when what you wish for and what you get are never the same" is, like most of the lyrics, immediately recognized as something familiar to all of us.

Michael Malthaner's original compositions are very often brilliant and always spot-on in expressing each character's special need for some combination of wish-fulfillment, miracle, and love. I was especially taken by Malthaner's canny arrangements of such classics as "Deck the Hall,""Rudolph,""Santa Baby," and "Silent Night." Any potential for staleness in each was overcome by some intricate melody-making and harmonizing over the familiar melodies.

Director Richard Tryzbiak overcomes the difficulty of pairing his characters, especially since only two of them, a lovelorn policeman and the divorced and disillusioned diner owner, are destined for romantic fulfillment.

The others include the mysterious and initially mute George, a coffee regular whose history is slowly -- and often painfully -- revealed; Carmel, the singer whose loss of husband and child on a Christmas Eve five years earlier has left her inconsolable; and Sebastian, the UPS man who must complete a delivery in order to carry out the instructions of his "boss."

The success achieved in moving these characters on the stage and in convincing us of the emotional truth in their relationships is good evidence of Tryzbiak's deft direction, Corritore's "we're-all-connected" story line and song lyrics, and Malthaner's creative songwriting and arranging. The show is thus a satisfying and, especially in that second act, moving experience, made even more so by the conviction and competence of the cast.

As the widowed singer, Carmel, Linda Troyer often exhibits her deep loss in high-note passages, but she's much more affecting when she caresses her lyrics in mellower tones.

As Betty, the waitress, Jean Malthaner is adept at showing us brassy and sassy as well as soft and gentle -- in both her acting and singing. Her would-be beau, Hank, the policeman, gives Jeff Brown good opportunities to employ his durable, confident vocal talents.

Brown doubles with Eric Marshall as one of the two Extraordinaires, the backup duo at the show's opening when Carmel sings the witty "There's Nothing Like a Christmas Song."

Brown becomes the policeman, and Marshall takes the role of Sebastian, the delivery man. His unadorned voice possesses fine clarity and seemed to be much more capable -- and downright enjoyable -- in the second act. James Darby's George undergoes the biggest change of character, and Darby is convincing all the way. With a smooth, strong baritone that's commendable for its lack of ostentation, he wins the audience.

It's worth mentioning that the Riverside Inn's dining and theater venue provides excellent acoustics. This results in easy comprehension of the song lyrics and dialogue, as well as optimum balance between the onstage performers and the flawless instrumental accompaniment by Katrina Foltz at keyboard and Michael Malthaner on the piano.

So if you're a bit tired of background carols at the mall and have an appetite for well-crafted and nicely executed holiday entertainment, visit the lovely grounds of the Riverside Inn. The regal, light-dotted walk to the theater from the parking lot makes a gorgeous prelude to "Christmas Wishes."

'Christmas Wishes' is written by Charles Corritore, with music by Michael Malthaner and directed by Rich Tryzbiak, with Linda Troyer, Jean Malthaner, Jeff Brown, Eric Marshall, James Darby.