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By Donald V. Calamia
Posted: Dec. 8, 2012 at 12:30 p.m.; updated Dec. 12, 2012 at 11:48 p.m.
What do you get when you mix two dozen familiar and not-so-familiar holiday tunes, a dozen-plus beautiful voices, a talented combo, and a handful of plot threads that tie it all together in a production that would warm the heart of the meanest Scrooge? The answer is "Home for the Holidays," the debut production of the Dionysus Theatre and Performing Arts Academy that opened Dec. 7 at Hartland High School off US 23 and M-59 in the tiny town of Hartland.
Founded earlier this year by Steve DeBruyne (artistic director), Matthew Tomich (business director) and Rick DeBruyne (producer), The Dio is Livingston County's only professional theater. The original plan was to open the show in a venue of its own in Downtown Brighton, but problems with local zoning officials forced them to find a home elsewhere. So for the time being, The Dio has landed a bit off the beaten path, but in a new, state-of-the-art high school auditorium that most professional theaters would kill to have as their own. (The beautiful facility is a far cry from what a certain teenage critic performed in decades ago: a gymtorium!)
Artistic director DeBruyne, who became an audience favorite during his years as associate artistic director at The Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter, serves as the show's director, and he teamed with Tomich and Amy Smidebush to write the script. Merging elements from a variety of sources, "Home for Holidays" follows the onstage performance and backstage shenanigans of the cast and crew of a holiday-themed musical on Christmas Eve. Its star, Portia Armstrong (Marlene Inman-Reilly), has just learned that her husband, Eric (Nicholas LaGrassa), will not be home from the service for the holidays. Depressed, she locks herself in her dressing room and refuses to go on stage – which is great news for her over-eager understudy, Belinda Doyle (Elizabeth Jaffe). Meanwhile, the show's male star, Christopher Lawrence (Steve DeBruyne), storms about and offends pretty much everyone with his rude and nasty comments. But never fear: Stage manager Nick (Frank B. Stevens) and his lovely wife, Mrs. C (Patti Byrd Jarosz), are there to work their magic!
And mostly magic it is, as the script provides each of the singers/dancers/actors with plenty of opportunities to shine – and they do, thanks to director DeBruyne's staging and the fine choreography by noted performer and dance instructor Michelle Marzejon. (They certainly fill the vastness of the stage quite well.)
Tenor Inman-Reilly commands the stage with every number she sings. The emotions she plumbs in the duet "Christmas Without You" (with LaGrassa) and in "I'll Be Home with Bells On" (with DeBruyne and company) are palpable. Interestingly, much of her time on stage finds her in the dark, on a raised platform upstage center, and mostly frozen. Yet somehow she managed to change costumes a time or two on opening night without me ever noticing.
DeBruyne plays against type here; he's usually the sweetheart, so his obnoxious character takes a few minutes to get used to. But his voice and abilities are in fine form, as evidenced by the attitude-changing "The Christmas Waltz" in the second act with Sarah Brown.
Other highlights include the delightful Jared Schneider, whose Jimmy is a ball of nervous energy. Inflicted by a nervous twitch thanks to the potential disaster looming all around him, Schneider's enormous comedic and dance skills are well utilized in "Here Comes Santa Claus" near the show's end. (He'll probably kill me for saying this, but something about his performance early on reminded me of the animated character Chilly Willy. Yes, I'm weird and showing my age.)
Also fun are The Franklin Sisters, a trio reminiscent of girl groups of the 1930s and '40s such as The Andrew Sisters. Betty Sue (Mary Jo Del Vero), Mary Lou (Lesa Doa) and Jean (Sarah Brown) are an angelic blend, but Del Vero tickles your funny bone with her infectious personality and giggle.
And while Stevens doesn't seem comfortable yet delivering Nick's dialogue, his deep, powerful voice seemed to stun the opening-night audience only seconds into his first number, "Believe." And his smooth richness continued with the subsequent songs "Mr. & Mrs. Santa Clause" and "It Feels Like Christmas."
Music direction is provided by recent two-time Wilde Award nominee Brian E. Buckner, whose five-piece combo skillfully adds to the show's ambience.
The backstage set by Phill Harmer is well lit by Tomich; a 3D effect (the show title projected on a downstage scrim) had people talking before the show. And costumes by Sharon Larkey Urick couldn't be better.
The opening night performance wasn't without a glitch or two, however – especially in the second act. A long period of darkness enveloped the cast (but they braved on for a minute or two), line bobbles hobbled the show's ending, and at times a performer or two seemed unsure of their choreography and/or lyrics. Plus, sound levels were a little off at times.
But overall, The Dio's debut is a delightful goody basket of holiday cheer. And I look forward to watching this young company grow and prosper in months and years to come.
SHOW DETAILS: Dionysus Theatre and Performing Arts Academy's "Home for the Holidays" continues at Hartland High School Auditorium, 10635 Dunham Rd., Hartland, Friday-Sunday through Dec. 23. Running time: 2 hours. Tickets: $28. For information: 517-672-6009 or www.diotheatre.com.
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