Bailiwick Repertory

Back when the big TV networks still controlled the airwaves and people were less cynical, the video holiday season was crammed with folksy family fare, like the Crosbys’ Christmas special (judging from what we now know about Bing, a triumph of one family’s acting over its affection) and countless gatherings around the Yule log by the ever-increasing King family. Andy Williams, Dinah Shore, Perry Como, Julie Andrews all climbed on the Christmas sleighwagon.

Now, for those who liked the genre but loathed the suffocating sentiment, there’s Songs of the Season, a cleverly mounted, engagingly performed Christmas anthology in its second year at Bailiwick Repertory.

Director Joe Huber knows just when to lay off the schmaltz, puncturing it neatly with something as wickedly apt as P.D.Q. Bach’s “Throw the Yule Log On Uncle John” (the chorus hilariously uncertain about whether or not there’s a comma). When fresh-faced Alan Chambers, playing a street caroler, croons the potentially maudlin “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” he gets stiffed by customers and molested by a mugger who’s definitely unclear on the concept of Christmas. In yet another pomposity popper, Allan Chambers cosily reads “The Gift of the Magi Indian Giver,” a twisted version of O. Henry’s inexplicably popular tale of two lovers’ clumsy gift giving.

The 90-minute show covers considerable holiday ground. Fueling the “Preparing for Christmas” section is the ensemble’s sardonic “Twelve Days to Christmas” from the musical She Loves Me, sung by desperate last-minute shoppers. The singers, well coached by pianist/musical director Mark Elliott, refurbish nostalgic favorites like “Silver Bells,” “Winter Wonderland,” “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” and Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” (which they perform at an increasingly breakneck tempo).

A gentle spoof of stagestruck brats in a grade school Yule pageant includes Laura Kubiak’s peppy rendition of “Here Comes Susie Snowflake” and Angela Friend’s disingenuous “(I’m Getting) Nuttin’ for Christmas.” In the section called “The Romance of Christmas,” the show waxes sweet and serious as color-coordinated couples serenade each other with evocative fare: Paul V. Smith’s mellow “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” followed by selections on a winter theme, “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” and “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”

The second act’s musical version of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” is interspersed with novelties: Susan Payne wailing a Motown version of “Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer,” a “Mr. Santa” to the tune of “Mr. Sandman,” and Samantha Fitschen slinking through a salacious version of “Santa Baby.”

The show ends on a properly traditional note, with the ensemble in formal concert attire regaling us with reliable carols like “God Bless Ye, Merry Gentlemen,” a moving a cappella “What Child Is This?” a candle-lit “Silent Night,” and finally “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”

Unpretentious and well-packaged, Songs of the Season is a worthy showcase for young talent–the cast of eight harmonizes beautifully. Some of the strongest solo work comes from Allan Chambers, whose deft contributions include a heartfelt recitation of the famous 1897 editorial “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus,” a spirited if rather strained solo in Adolphe Adam’s “O Holy Night,” and a hearty turn as a much-ogled Santa Claus. Will Morison does well in a tender rethinking of “Count Your Blessings,” Kubiak freshens up the overly familiar “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and Elliott throws himself into a spirited piano version of “Jingle Bell Rock.”

Never overstaying its welcome or the audience’s goodwill, Songs of the Season casts its modest spell more richly than many extravagant Christmas spectacles that grow fat off the holiday season.

In my December 7 review of Goodman Theatre’s A Christmas Carol I meant to acknowledge the director, who over the last two seasons has kept the story fresh and made it even more relevant. Steve Scott’s is the invisible hand that brings the grand tale to such abundant life.