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Review: I'll Be Home for Christmas Is a World Premiere, but Not World-Class

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Usually a show having its world premiere in Denver is something to celebrate, but every now and then you wonder if you’re witnessing a premiere only because no other theater in the country wanted to stage the thing. I’ll Be Home for Christmas, a musical written by Kenn McLaughlin with songs by David Nehls, which is now enjoying its first-ever public airing at the Arvada Center, is one of those dubious achievements.

Set in 1969, I’ll Be Home is the story of a famous family, the Brights, made up of Louise and Dana and their grown children, Maggie and Simon. The Brights are preparing for their annual Christmas special, a special that’s beloved by the public. After The 1940s Radio Hour opened to raves in 1979, it inspired a few other musicals about the making of a production, slices of life that include backstage shenanigans, interpolated commercials, comedy and drama, and that’s exactly what this is. But the bits don’t hold together here, and the characters aren’t believable. Maggie is a rebellious war protester and Simon has just returned from his tour in Vietnam suffering from PTSD. Their differences ought to provide sparks, but Maggie just yells about war being wrong, and he mopes until finally coming clean about his experience in Vietnam. If you’ve ever listened to old guys talk about their time there, you’ve doubtless heard amazing stories backed by vivid detail, but Simon’s is standard Hollywood boilerplate. There are also two young men purported to be writers who keep popping up uttering veiled threats about changing the way the Brights do the show, which could be a nod to the way time-honored systems are being disrupted by capitalistic jerks who don’t begin to understand the traditions they’re savaging. But we never learn anything about what these guys are thinking, and there’s no proof they’re ill-intentioned.

All might be forgiven if the songs were catchy — Radio Hour took on fistfuls of old favorites with great results — but the numbers in I’ll Be Home for Christmas are original, and only one of them is interesting: the cowboy ballad “Christmastime on Highway 13.” The authors do employ a couple of tried-and-true numbers, and when Louise, standing alone, begins “O Holy Night,” you’re filled with anticipation. Whose heart wouldn’t be melted by Megan Van De Hey singing one of the loveliest works ever written? But she’s only through the first verse when Simon arrives to resume their squabble.

The choreography and costumes feel more ’50s than ’60s, and supposed rebel Maggie is as crinolined and artificially golden-wigged as her mother. Maybe this is intentional, a comment on how out-of-date the Brights’ vision is — in which case those punky writers can’t kill it fast enough.

I'll Be Home for Christmas, presented by the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities through December 23, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, 720-898-7200, arvadacenter.org.

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