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Osmonds deliver just what we want for Christmas

THEATER REVIEW: "Donny and Marie: Christmas in Chicago" at the Oriental Theatre ★★★

Chris Jones

2:55 PM CST, December 7, 2011

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After completing a frenetic, yule-themed dance number that would be taxing for someone half his age, Donny Osmond had a moment Tuesday night where he clearly needed to catch his breath.

"You've got 23 shows to go," boomed a voice from the audience at the back of the Oriental Theatre. Osmond looked up in surprise, then grinned that famously toothy grin and theatricality gritted those ever-white teeth. "Thanks for the reminder," he said, sarcastically, to warm and empathetic applause.

It was a telling moment for many reasons. Donny and Marie Osmond are old-school entertainers, as distinct from the younger, hipper, 90-minutes-and-out crowd. In their new, Branson-style Christmas show, here titled "Donny and Marie: Christmas in Chicago," the famous-for-decades brother-and-sister act perform just about every popular Christmas tune known to humanity, many of them at unforgiving tempos, yet they still manage to walk the audience down a retro lane past "Puppy Love," "Go Away Little Girl" and anything else a child of the 1970s could hope their former idols might sing.

If there is a bell, it is jingled. If they had a hit, it is hit. If there is a reference in their pop-culture biography — "Joseph," Nutrisystem, "Dancing with the Stars" — it is discussed and dispensed.

The slim and glamorous Marie Osmond's attire, which changed faster than I could hope to write it down, includes everything from slinky dresses to a ball gown suitable for Anna in "The King And I," to a retro skirt decked with flowers, all the better to capture the original mood of "Paper Roses," her hit at the age of 12, back when 12 was really 12.

This smorgasbord approach — at one moment they're debuting new singles (country, inspirational and seasonal), the next they're making fun of their 1970s selves — comes at the expense of a certain coziness. The show is short on quieter, gentler moments, and there are spots when you wish the stars were trying a little less hard to be hip. But the Osmonds clearly understand that their audience needs to see that they have lost none of their fight, creativity and energy — and let us stipulate they absolutely haven't — because to see otherwise would oblige those folks in their 40s and 50s to admit that they, too, have grown older.

The level of energy and clatter is perhaps partly a consequence of the Osmonds' Las Vegas residency, but it's surely also an understanding of their existential role as representatives of the middle-aged. In one of the musical highlights of the evening, Donny sang the rich, 1970s ballad, "Love Me for a Reason," with harmonies provided, on video, by his brothers. It was recorded, Donny said, last summer. When the graying visages of Wayne, Jimmy, et al, filled the screen, the gasps in the theater were audible. But not when Donny and Marie came out.

At various other points, the Osmonds, who clearly need their audience, are in the aisles of the theater (Donny, more than once, went surfing across rows), supervising the dispensing of candy canes, offering sweaty kisses and otherwise aiming to please. They take few shortcuts. Their production budget is in their musicians and dancers (of the free-wheeling Las Vegas kind), not in back-up singers. Donny and Marie, whose remarkable pipes remain stellar and whose personalities and insecurities have only become more interesting with time, have all of that in hand. No question.

Their on-stage shtick mostly casts Donny as a simple, easy-going fellow who needs to be kept on track by his sharper and more acerbic sister, a state of play that, one suspects, has considerable real-life referent. Suspense is offered in whether Donny will come through with his promise to give Marie the kind of present she desires.

Despite the common perception, though, the show is not overly schmaltzy or sentimental. The current Osmond trope is one of resourceful survivors who have weathered a variety of storms (and in Marie's case, especially, the thunderclouds have been all too real), seen numerous changes in their business, and have kept on keeping on — which is an image that they clearly desire and just as clearly have earned.

They are also formidable improvisers. Marie, especially, is at her best when confronted with the unexpected. On opening night, the unexpected was an intrusive Ronnie "Woo Woo" Wickers the famed Cubs fan, who put the stars of the show in the difficult position of knowing less than their audience, a state of play Marie turned around quite brilliantly, reducing "Woo-Woo" to Jell-O. There's nothing pretentious about the Osmonds' act; they start with what they sense are the seasonal needs of their audience and, as they have for 40 years, over-achieve from there.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through Dec. 24

Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

Tickets: $37-$100 at 800-775-2000 and broadwayinchicago.com