Mandalay Live! has dropped a bundle of money into this new song-and-dance revue intended to offer Chicagoans something along the lines of what New York’s Radio City Music Hall has provided for decades during the holiday season. And judged solely on its bigness, “That’s Christmas!” more than justifies the pricey $ 60 top tickets. But for all its lavishness, “That’s Christmas!” comes up short in providing what should be the most important part of any holiday show – some genuine heart and real sentiment.
Set designer David Mitchell and lighting wizard Natasha Katz are the show’s real stars. They have filled the Shubert Theater stage with a multitude of huge, ingeniously designed set pieces and burst after burst of gorgeous illumination. Ann Hould-Ward has provided plenty of expensive costumes too, though some look rather too bizarre for a Christmas show. (Zebra stripes on Santa Claus outfits?)
The 90-minute revue (with intermission) primarily consists of a series of large-scale production numbers featuring choreographer Jerry Mitchell’s high-energy dance routines. The musical segments incorporate a variety of familiar and newly composed seasonal songs. Composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist David Zippel’s title tune is among the show’s most forgettable bits of music.
The opening sequence, set to “We Need a Little Christmas,” is a frenetic, precision dance number that spotlights the sizable chorus’ skills, but it also leaves star Sandy Duncan badly winded and hard pressed to deliver the monologue that immediately follows. The monologue itself could use some work. Do audiences really need to be patronizingly reminded that most of the show’schorus actually come from Chicago?
Another act-one segment, set in the American Airlines terminal at O’Hare Intl. Airport, is an embarrassingly blatant plug for the carrier, a “That’s Christmas!” sponsor. The number also shamelessly steals from “The Nutcracker,”
when dancers decked out in finery from different countries perform for a young girl stranded at the airport.
Darlene Love is the show’s guest star, and she makes her big entrance at the end of act one. Snowed in at a ski lodge, the pop diva delivers several Christmas tunes, including “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” and “All Alone on Christmas.” A second-act duet with Duncan and Love performing “His Rocking Horse Ran Away” is nicely sung, but the performers don’t exhibit much stage chemistry.
While much of “That’s Christmas!” seems coldly calculated to bowl over audiences with a loud and costly display of showbiz professionalism, two of the show’s least flashy components provide the evening’s most genuinely affecting moments. One is an offbeat take on the de rigueur nativity scene. “That’s Christmas!” transports us to a school where plans for the annual nativity pageant have gone badly awry. But with the reluctant help of the school
librarian and shop foreman, the show goes on anyway in a delightfully fractured yet sweetly touching way.
The other standout aspect of “That’s Christmas!” is the Huber Marionettes. Though the tiny puppets look terribly out of place in such a big musical show, the true genius of their creator, Philip Huber, is apparent in every lifelike
move Huber initiates when he and one of his puppets are onstage.