Review: Gently affecting Clint Black musical ‘Looking for Christmas’ finds spirit of the season in Old Globe world premiere
The holidays are a time when we’re all looking for a little equilibrium: Dial up the thermostat a few degrees, dial down the cynicism a notch or three.
So when a show like “Clint Black’s Looking for Christmas” comes along, wearing its heart on its cowboy-calico sleeve, I’m of a mind to find the simple gifts in what during another season might feel like material bordering on the overly sentimental.
Not that this musical needs excuses: The show, which just opened its world-premiere production at the Old Globe Theatre, tells its affecting story of family and personal turmoil with straightforward, unabashed sincerity and a string of tuneful songs.
Those come courtesy of Black, the country-and-western superstar (20 million albums sold and counting) whose music makes up the score of “Looking for Christmas,” named for his 1995 holiday album.
The title song of that album’s 2004 reissue, “Christmas With You” (co-written with guitarist Hayden Nicholas), comes near the top of director Kent Nicholson’s production in the Globe’s arena-style White Theatre, and helps set the stage for the story.
The number is a long-distance duet between the Army medic Mike Randolf (Aaron C. Finley), who’s based in Afghanistan, and his wife back home, Jessie (fellow Broadway actor Liana Hunt). It’s a tender and wistful country waltz that captures the uncertainty the pair and their 9-year-old daughter, Ellie (Kaylin Hedges), face with Christmas approaching.
Soon, things will take a more sobering turn — telegraphed maybe a bit too forcefully when another member of Mike’s unit says, “Word is this is our last patrol before going home,” the kind of statement that always seem to be a red flag in stories about those in danger zones.
What happens after that breaks Mike a little inside, and while he puts on a brave face for his wife and daughter upon his homecoming, he’s haunted by misplaced guilt and regrets.
Part of that has to do with his best friend and Army mate, Douglas Miller (DeLeon Dallas), who becomes a key force for getting Mike past his trauma — although to reveal how that transpires would risk giving away too much.
Douglas, too, is separated from his family, and he and his wife Alissa (Syndee Winters, a beautifully soulful singer), have their own sweetly romantic duet early on with “Me and the Moon,” one of four new songs Black wrote for the show.
Young Ellie ultimately plays a big role in the effort to rescue Mike, and Hedges brings charm and a pleasing voice to the part; her delivery can feel a little rushed here and there, but then Ellie is an excitable kid.
Finley also is an appealing presence who lends both offhand humor and gravity to the role of Mike, as well as a little country twang to his singing; there’s a winning chemistry between him and Hunt, whose Jessie is warmly sympathetic.
And the rising Dallas adds powerful grace notes in a tricky role as the friend who won’t rest until Mike comes to terms with tragedy. (The show also boasts a solid supporting cast of both kids and adults.)
If there’s a weakness in the storytelling by James D. Sasser and Black, it’s in the overly stoic, subdued reactions on display after the event that shakes up everyone’s lives early on in the 90-minute, no-intermission show. What should be a seismic pivot point feels oddly muted.
That’s at least partly made up for, though, with Finley’s rendition of “The Kid,” which becomes an ideal coming-to-terms number late in the show, as a struggling Mike looks back to childhood and sings: “Can I still believe that those miracles occur?” The next number, a duet between Doug and Alissa on Black’s quietly moving new tune “Never Knew Love,” also left plenty of misty eyes in the house on opening night.
Music director Matt Hinkley’s six-piece band plays those and other songs with plenty of personality; the country-fiddle and lap-steel notes are especially expressive. Sean Fanning’s understated, homey set serves the story well; Charlotte Devaux’s costumes are a whole lot of yuletide fun on one Christmas-minded number in particular; and Rui Rita’s lighting and Leon Rothenberg’s sound are well-calibrated to the cozy space.
It all makes for theater that won’t be accused of being cutting-edge — that’s not really its aim — but stands as a worthy addition to the holiday-show canon just the same.
“Clint Black’s Looking for Christmas”
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Check with theater for exceptions.) Through Dec. 31.
Where: Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, Balboa Park.
Tickets: $39 and up
Phone: (619) 234-5623
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