REVIEW: ‘Rockin’ Christmas Party’

Denise Lee and Markus Lloyd in 'Rockin' Christmas Party.'

If a musical revue featuring a six-person ensemble and no real plot can have a star, then the star of Rockin’ Christmas Party — returning to WaterTower Theatre a decade after it first began a run as a holiday standard — is Markus Lloyd. Lloyd belts out Motown hits, croons on carols like “What Christmas Means to Me” and moves better than James Brown on “I Feel Good,” “Brickhouse” and “Love Shack.” With his deep voice and infectious energy, he puts the “rockin’” in the title — enough so, that you might not notice that the show itself is too cheesy by half.

Dave Steakley’s musical tour of the latter half of 20th century music with a seasonal theme has been a regional favorite for ages, and like similar shows — Forever Plaid comes to mind, as well as A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker — it represents a tradition perhaps more honored in the breach than in the observance: Going might just be the thing to get you in the holiday mood, but it feels more like a routine than an inspiration.

This production plays to the actors’ strengths, although in that way, it’s predictable, even a bit dull. Jenny Thurman has played Patsy Cline many times; having her perform a medley of country songs with a Patsy twang is, at least, uninspired. (The songs selected are puzzling as well; story-ballads like “Harper Valley, P.T.A.” and “Ode to Billy Joe” have actual plots, so doing mash-ups that delete large parcels of lyric is a failure. It makes no sense to sing about “the day my mama socked it to” the P.T.A. without hearing what she did is ludicrous.)

Gary Lynn Floyd’s smooth tenor is a perfect match for the comforting sequence of TV Christmas special-like songs, and the theater rocks with gay pride during the disco sequence, which includes “I Will Survive,”  ”YMCA,” ”I’m Coming Out” and “It’s Raining Men” — it might as well have a drag queen leading the way. But that also raises a question: What about those songs says “Christmastime” to you? Only about a quarter of the musical numbers are actual carols — the rest are just retro doo-wop and rock songs. Fun, yes, but not really overflowing with holiday cheer. (How does “Movin’ On Up,” the theme from The Jeffersons, belong within three miles of this show?)

Neither do the costumes. Despite red and green velvets conjuring Santa’s elves, these creations, paired with unattractive wigs, detract from the spirit of the season more than complement it.  Thurman is clad in a petticoated prom dress that makes her look like a drag version of Lisa Lampanelli, and Sara Shelby-Martin comes out near the end in a get-up (including hat) that looks like a Pan Am stewardess wearing a sombrero designed in the Land of Oz.

None of that, of course, affects the singing, which is excellent. (On opening night, Amy Stevenson, one of the biggest-voiced of big-voiced singers in town, was clearly off her game, barely getting her songs out above a whisper.)  Rockin’ Christmas Party ends up as a show better listened to than watched — just like all those Andy Williams/Perry Como TV specials.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones