Old songs are wrapped up anew in Kalliope's Tiniest Gift.

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The Tiniest Gift Through December 23 at the Kalliope Stage, 2134 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-321-0870.
Kalliope ends '06 on yet another high note.
Kalliope ends '06 on yet another high note.
As we brace ourselves for the household damage sure to result from our new Nintendo Wii game controllers (Dad, the remote's stuck in the plasma screen . . .), it is wise to remember that presents come in all sizes. And one of the more bountiful treasures in local theater is found whenever the Kalliope Stage opens another show.

Modest in square footage but huge in talent, Kalliope always succeeds in bringing sublime singing voices to the fore, whether the plays themselves are stellar or just mediocre. And their 90-minute holiday offering, The Tiniest Gift, is almost a perfect microcosm of the theater. The 11-person cast, made up of individuals who have had key roles in past Kalliope productions, creates a diverting evening of song, with only some minor lumps in the pudding.

This original cabaret, created and directed by Paul F. Gurgol, rounds up a couple of classics along with offbeat and interesting tunes -- not the usual suspects you'd expect in a frothy Christmas cavalcade. In the place of a story line, the "gifts" of the title are broken into three groups: family and friends; nature; and memory, faith, and tradition.

This rather clunky categorization works against the flow in the first third of the show, since the story-songs about friends and family are all slow ballads that begin to feel awfully similar in mood and tempo. But Elizabeth Kelly handles "My Grandmother's Love Letters" with tenderness, and Andrew Wehling finds a little humor in the ode to a racetrack-betting father in "And They're Off!" "For Good," the charming duet between the good witch and the bad witch from Wicked, loses some of its impact, since there is no context for the song, and the audience is left to imagine why these two women have such a conflicted relationship.

The pulse of the show quickens a bit as the songs turn to the gifts of nature, and four of the performers contribute a rousing if not perfectly harmonized rendition of "Snow" from White Christmas. Kris Comer turns in a torchy turn on "Ill Wind," and Wehling returns to kick up the energy as a boy praying for a canceled school day in "Come On Snow." But Kelly and Mark Ludden ham it up a bit too much and crimp the smooth stylings in Frank Loesser's "Baby, It's Cold Outside."

Most of the tastiest treats are tucked away in the last part of the show, and they're worth waiting for. William Clarence Marshall does the virtually impossible by delivering a basso profundo version of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" that actually competes favorably with the original crooned by Thurl Ravenscroft. The only disappointment is that the delicious lyrics have been trimmed back, eliminating the evocative Grinchy insult "You're a nasty, wasty skunk/Your heart is full of unwashed socks/Your soul is full of gunk." This is one song that could be twice as long and no one would complain.

Jodi Brinkman is right on target with "All Those Christmas Clichés," warbling about Johnny Mathis and sugar-glazed fruitcake (as if there's a difference). The funniest tune of the evening is presented by Killeen Vogel, playing a harried holiday cook in "Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise." She describes some truly hideous culinary concoctions with a spry, stiff-upper-lip manner that matches the song nicely.

But the loveliest and most melodic moments, other than when Adina Bloom is crafting a warm and affecting "Shalom" from the Broadway show Milk and Honey, are when the ensemble gathers to sing "Still, Still, Still" and "Al Shlosha D'varim." The voices blend beautifully in these intricate pieces, under the guidance of music director Michael P. Hamilton, and it's too bad there aren't more such choral arrangements throughout the show.

One glitch in the proceedings involves director Gurgol's clear intent to have his performers look at each other and smile, almost constantly, when they're onstage together. This forced bit of conviviality is not only irritating, it makes it hard for the audience to connect with the singers, since they're so busy swiveling their heads to share a plastic grin and nod with their neighbor. This corny bit of stage shtick was skewered years ago in the movie Airplane!, and it needn't be revived now.

Fittingly, the emotional climax of the show comes at the end, when Kalliope co-founder John Paul Boukis sings Susan Werner's "May I Suggest." This gently rueful song posits that this instant is the best moment of our lives -- a sentiment that has added heft, since Boukis is leaving the theater after this production to pursue his own creative projects. But with or without this talented individual, the Kalliope crew proves again that the tiniest and most precious gift is . . . the present.

About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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