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Theater preview: Riverside Christmas Spectacular brings home the holidays

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If it’s not beginning to look a lot like Christmas just yet, take a look at Riverside Center for the Performing Arts and think again.

On Wednesday, the Fredericksburg entertainment staple kicked off the 2022 stint of its Christmas spectacle, which runs Wednesdays through Sundays through the end of the year.

The idea of a Riverside-bred Christmas show was born five years ago and has evolved through the years, adhering to some fan favorites and sprinkling in some new seasonal delights. This year’s “Riverside Christmas Spectacular” carries a timely “Home for the Holidays” theme.

“This is the first Christmas in some time where everyone can let their guard down a bit and we can all come together,” said Patrick A’Hearn, producing artistic director at Riverside. “Thus far, we’ve sold more than 5,000 tickets to our Christmas shows, so clearly the community is ready. In many ways, this show is a holiday gift to our patrons, as they are all part of our Riverside family, and we want them all to feel right at home.”

The “Riverside Christmas Spectacular” carries a revue format, chock-full of seasonal tunes, choreography and intimate stories from the cast. Past iterations of the show have boasted casts ranging in size from eight — amid the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic — and up to 20 in 2017 and 2019.

This year’s show features a cast of 14 as well as a seven-member orchestra, with customized arrangements by Paul Rawlins and David Landrum. Visually, count on a hybrid of projections, warm lighting and scenes that evoke a sense of family.

In total, A’Hearn said nearly 40 songs are presented, including classics like “Joy to the World,” “White Christmas” and “Toyland.” As for perhaps the most requested number, Riverside regulars need not worry.

“One of the favorites that people love, ‘March of the Wooden Soldiers’ is making a return,” said A’Hearn. “It has been so beautifully done by our choreographer and I understand why it brings joy to so many.”

At the reins of the choreography — which includes everything from kickline dance numbers to swing to tap — is Riverside performer Stephanie Wood. She has performed in dozens of Riverside productions through the years and considers her work on the Christmas shows — dating back to the first one — among her proudest accomplishments.

“For me, Christmas at Riverside is such a special time,” said Wood. “It is a home for me over the holidays and such a distinct time to perform. I also love hearing from our patrons ... they tell me it fills them with the spirit of the season.”

Wood isn’t the only familiar face you’ll see onstage. In fact, according to A’Hearn, 13 of the cast members have been in a prior Riverside show. The cast includes the likes of Andrea Kahane, Sally Roehl, Nancy M. Crawley, Gabrielle Gutierrez and Colby Leroy.

As for fresh elements for the 2022 show — without ruining all of the surprises — it starts with the opening number, a rendition of “Home” from the Broadway musical “The Wiz.” Also, count on a little magic from A’Hearn himself — he’ll be singing an anthem of peace, “One Song,” which he previously sang with American composer and icon, Marvin Hamlisch.

“It’s rare and I get asked a lot, ‘When will you be singing in another show?’” he says. “Well, here you go and now is the time. I haven’t sung in two years and I’m greasing up the pipes and getting up there and doing it.”

“Riverside Christmas Spectacular: Home for the Holidays” marks the final production of its 24th season.

Riverside’s current slate of shows for its 25th season include “Escape to Margaritaville” (Jan. 11 through March 5, 2023), “Ragtime the Musical” (March 15 through May 7), “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” (May 17 through July 9), “42nd Street” (July 19 through Sept. 10), “The Bridges of Madison County” (Sept. 20 through Nov. 12) and, for Christmas 2023, “Miracle on 34th Street” (Nov. 22 through Dec. 31).

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