At the close of a year in which Coronado’s Lamb’s Players Theatre distinguished itself with a long-running, unforgettable production of the musical “Once,” it’s appropriate that its annual Festival of Christmas offering is a product of strong musicianship.
In fact, four cast members from “Once” return to both act and play music in the 2018 festival’s original show “Reaching for the Stars,” written and directed by Kerry Meads: Caitie Grady, Manny Fernandes, Jimmy Marino and Angela Chatelain Avila. They’re complemented by an assemblage of some of San Diego’s finest theater vocalists, including Sandy Campbell, Joy Yandell Hricko and Cashae Monya. The all-star collaboration results in a holiday treat that the entire family can enjoy.
The setting for “Reaching for the Stars” is a recording studio located in a “Commuter Friendly Neighborhood” – in other words, directly beneath the deafening roar of passing trains. (The sound effect is called upon almost to excess.) This plot device guarantees some instant sympathy for good-guy partners Niko Penney (Michael Oakley) and Christian Lane (Luke Harvey Jacobs) who own and operate the struggling studio. More pragmatically, the studio setting affords the show’s intertwined characters reason and opportunity to break into music-making and song. Jon Lorenz, at Lamb’s for 16 years, is musical director, and in the parlance of recording studios, he pushes all the right buttons.
On the narrative front, “Reaching for the Stars” is fairly bursting with plot complications beyond Niko’s and Christian’s financial plight: Faith (Grady, who also plays exquisite keyboards) is missing her husband, who’s serving in Afghanistan, at the holidays; ebullient nighttime DJ Patrice (Monya) is losing her nighttime radio gig; single mom Melody (Yandell Hricko) has the holiday blues in a big way; Christian’s sister Grace (Sarah Busic) has set up their widowed dad Matt (Fernandes), quite unbeknown to him, on a blind date with an internet match (Campbell). Hovering over everything and seemingly everyone is old Van (Jim Chovick, a familiar face in Lamb’s productions) -- philosopher of the neighborhood, friend to all and smiling purveyor of unsolicited aphorisms like “Too bad there’s not a GPS for life.”
But “Reaching for the Stars” is really about the live music, which includes inspired takes on traditional carols (employing in the process everything from bossa nova to spoken-word flavoring) and heartfelt performances of numbers like Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith’s “Maybe This Christmas” and cast member Jimmy Marino’s own “(Nothing Like Spending) Christmas With You.” The ensemble, meanwhile, delivers a rousing rendition of the spiritual “Go Tell It On the Mountain” and turns the frequently solemn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” into a celebratory jam session.
There’s also the sheer perfection of Sandy Campbell singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” a cappella. That alone is guaranteed to give you a lump in your throat and a warm feeling deep inside.
(Review originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on 12/10/18.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.