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
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
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.