I'll Be Seeing You: A 1940's Christmas Musical

TexARTS' original holiday revue is thrilling when it's not hampered by tentativeness

Arts Review

I'll Be Seeing You: A 1940's Christmas Musical

Kam and James Morris Theatre, through Dec. 21

Running time: 2 hr, 10 min

I've lived in the Austin area for well over 20 years, but never have I seen a theatrical production company like TexARTS.

Functioning as a producing organization for a scant three years, TexARTS makes no bones about planning to have not just a theatre with hundreds of seats within five years' time but a ballet, a symphony, and an opera to serve the lake region, as well. Austin sets a high bar for the arts, but TexARTS' Executive Director Todd Dellinger and Artistic Director Robin Lewis take that bar and goose it even higher.

Dellinger wrote and directed, and Lewis choreographed, designed the costumes for, and performs in TexARTS' latest production, I'll Be Seeing You: A 1940's Christmas Musical. Certain aspects of the show clear their very high bar, but others don't quite make it off the tarp. The fact that it's a musical revue doesn't help. Revues are notorious for sewing together a lot of popular songs with the thinnest – and thus weakest – of narrative threads, and you'll find that familiar thread limply hanging here. Standards such as "At Last," "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree," and the titular "I'll Be Seeing You" are stitched around actual letters written among husbands, wives, and children during World War II, and while the songs, for the most part, are entertaining as ever, the narrative letters don't carry the dramatic weight you might expect, possibly because the bulk of this narration falls to Joe Penrod and Wendy Zavaleta. Both sing well when called on to do so, but they push and strain at the text, either not trusting its innate power or not trusting themselves with it.

Fortunately, as is the case with almost every revue, the show is about the music, not the narrative, and in this, the production almost always excels. Leslie Hollingsworth, Kelly Khun, and Selena Rosanbalm take the roof off right at the beginning, performing multiple Andrews Sisters songs, and each contributes worthy solos later on. And Andrew Cannata sings "I'll Be Home for Christmas" as if it were written just for him. But as impressive as the music is, the single most impressive part of the show is when four couples dance to "In the Mood" on the tiny stage of the Kam and James Morris Theatre. Swooping and twirling and tossing each other with abandon, Lewis and Alison Spell create as thrilling and entertaining a dance as I've ever seen in a theatre. Add multiple rich, gorgeous gowns on the women, sharp and varied service uniforms on the men, and a charming Christmas card set for the finale, and you have a show that could almost scale any height.

Almost, but not quite. Some of the dancing wasn't quite together opening weekend, an ill-conceived or ill-executed slide show distracted, and a tentativeness on the part of the performers pervaded the production. In many instances, I would write these flaws off, but not for TexARTS. Put simply, they're better than this. Either they needed a more consistently experienced group of performers or more time to perfect what they had. In either case, they've sold themselves a bit short here. But I'm certain they'll learn from it, because they've set their bar so high. And I, for one, look forward to seeing them jump it for many years to come.

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I'll Be Seeing You, TexARTS, Todd Dellinger, Robin Lewis, Leslie Hollingsworth, Selena Rosanbalm, Kelly Khun, Andrew Cannata, Alison Spell

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