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STAGE REVIEW

‘Divas’ keep the emphasis on merry and bright

From left: Kami Rushell Smith, Aimee Doherty, Bobbie Steinbach, and Michele A. DeLuca in “New Rep’s Darling Divas Deck the Holidays.’’ From left: Kami Rushell Smith, Aimee Doherty, Bobbie Steinbach, and Michele A. DeLuca in “New Rep’s Darling Divas Deck the Holidays.’’ (Christopher Mckenzie)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / December 21, 2010

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WATERTOWN — After swimming in angst, we want to bathe in nostalgia. After munching on meat and potatoes, we crave a little dessert.

That appears to be the reasoning behind “New Rep’s Darling Divas Deck the Holidays,’’ a holiday cabaret at the New Repertory Theatre that stars Bobbie Steinbach, Kami Rushell Smith, Michele A. DeLuca, and Aimee Doherty.

With its mixture of holiday songs, readings from stories such as “The Gift of the Magi,’’ personal reminiscences, and banter among the performers, “Divas’’ is a pleasant enough seasonal diversion.

But does it have to contain such done-to-death tunes as “Let It Snow’’ and “The Christmas Song,’’ which resist the most ardent attempts by singers to resuscitate them? And is that “Darling’’ in the title strictly necessary?

OK, enough Grinchiness. At this time of year, there’s room for a family-friendly, sentimental-verging-on-corny show that wears its heart on its sleeve. Besides, Steinbach’s drollery keeps the sap from rising too high.

Right off the bat, the veteran performer underscores the age difference between her and the three younger singers. She asks them if they recall those classic televised holiday specials of yore, and they, feigning ingenuousness, say sure, then pipe up with some names: Madonna, Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys.

With a sigh, Steinbach responds that she has in mind singers of a different vintage — Perry Como, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby — which leads into “Little Drummer Boy’’ by Smith and DeLuca that is inspired by the famous duet between Crosby and David Bowie.

Smith is an appealing performer who projects considerable personal warmth, but she needs to turn up the volume a bit. Her delivery of songs such as “All I Want for Christmas Is You’’ and “O, Holy Night’’ was too soft, given the size of the Charles Mosesian Theater. (The New Rep’s Black Box Theater might have been a better venue for an intimate cabaret show like this.)

A similar problem afflicted DeLuca’s rendition of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside’’ with keyboardist Todd C. Gordon (who is also the show’s music director). But DeLuca manages, against all odds, to infuse “Jingle Bells’’ with fresh life by greatly speeding it up, demonstrating deft comic timing.

Doherty, who has a poised stage presence and a lovely voice, puts both to good use in “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’’ while Steinbach delivers a crooked-finger, come-hither version of “Santa Baby’’ that is one of the high points of the show, along with her boisterous rendition of “Eight Days of Hanukkah,’’ set to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.’’ The latter is performed in the guise of “Hurricane Cohen,’’ a former exotic dancer (once known as “the amazing anatomical anomaly of the 20th century,’’ she informs us) who now works as Steinbach’s dresser.

That’s about as close as “Divas’’ gets to jeopardizing its G rating. Directed by Kate Warner, the New Rep’s artistic director, the show feels like a strategic detour into a safe harbor at the midpoint of a season when the New Rep has challenged its audiences.

The season began with David Mamet’s “Boston Marriage.’’ Even though it was an atypical Mamet play, focused on the fraught relationship between a pair of elegant upper-class ladies at the turn of the 20th century, “Marriage’’ still was rife with the playwright’s trademark cutting exchanges and naughty words.

Then came “Cherry Docs,’’ an intense drama by Canadian playwright David Gow about a Jewish lawyer wrestling with his conscience, his heritage, and his marriage after he is assigned to defend a neo-Nazi skinhead who has been accused of kicking an immigrant to death.

That was followed by the outsized emotions (and nude scenes) of Terrence McNally’s “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,’’ with Anne Gottlieb and Robert Pemberton lending a raw urgency to the question of whether Frankie and Johnny were meant for each other or not.

Next up at New Rep is “afterlife: a ghost story,’’ a psychological drama by Steve Yockey about a young couple coping with loss and grief. In other words, the dark side will beckon soon enough. In the meantime, you could do worse than to spend 90 minutes in a comfort zone with “Divas.’’

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

NEW REP’S DARLING DIVAS DECK THE HOLIDAYS

Directed by Kate Warner. Musical direction by Todd C. Gordon.

Sets, Joseph O’Dea. Lights, Maxfield Bishop. Costumes, Erik Teague. Sound, Gillian Moon.

At: New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Charles Mosesian Theater, Watertown.

Through Thursday. Tickets $30, 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org.