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"Holiday Heart"

Rating: ***

Drama by Cheryl L. West.

Starring Kinzy Brown, Liyah Blazer and Lydia Baines Al-Amin. Directed by Paulette D. Harris.

Fridays, Saturday and Sundays through Dec. 8 in Paul Robeson Theatre, 350 Masten Ave.

It's beginning to look a lot like Thanksgiving and Christmas, a time when Western New York theatrical companies brush off Charles Dickens, tweak "The Nutcracker" or perhaps gather their respective players for a feel-good evening of carols or songs of the season.

So, on the way to the Paul Robeson Theatre's new production, Cheryl L. West's "Holiday Heart," I anticipated an hour or two of the warm and fuzzies. But a pre-performance chat with director Paulette Harris informed me that, actually, "Holiday Heart" was the name of the main character. Holiday is a black drag queen living in a red-light Chicago neighborhood -- hookers, big-time crime, drugs -- a kind, bizarre soul who cares for a recovering addict friend, Wanda, and her precocious 12-year-old daughter, Niki, who is beginning to be drawn to the streets.

Well, so much for dinner at Grandma's, a sip of the nog or chestnuts roasting on the open fire.

Harris is no stranger to the works of playwright West -- "I love the way she writes," she says -- having cut her directorial teeth six years ago with West's "Jar the Floor." Harris returns with a wandering, bittersweet story of people in survival mode, an often touching look at some fractured lives, with hopelessness never far away and greener pastures mere dreams.

The flamboyant Holiday -- even at home, he is over-the-top, sashaying around alone in heels and a boa -- watches Wanda like a hawk. Wanda can't be trusted to stay clean and now she's taken up with smooth-talking Silas, a guy with drugs in his briefcase and money in his pocket. This, of course, is bad news for fatherless Niki, the teller of this tale. Holiday is both father confessor and guardian angel to his friends, a payer of bills, part of the "family."

At Niki's birthday party, Wanda is very appreciative: "Thanks for coming over," she says to Holiday. "And you went to all the trouble of putting on pants."

The wise-beyond-her-years Niki -- played by Liyah Blazer, a sixth-grader at Buffalo's Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts -- sets up the many scenes, then melts into them. Not always effectively, but "Holiday Heart" asks a lot of this young actress who should get more comfortable with the role as time goes on. She has mature topics to deal with and adult things to say.

Playwright West has created some strong characters here, but sometimes conversations are superficial and dialogue doesn't ring true. Blazer's character is stuck with this, as are the others, but I suspect that she'll be very good before long.

Kinzy Brown and Lydia Baines Al-Amin, Robeson veterans, are luckily here. Brown is Holiday, pathetic to the world at large but apparently at ease with himself/herself. Tough role here, one handled with a mix of aplomb, self-deprecation and humor. He has a Tina Turner minute of shaking tail feathers that brings the house down, and his trip to the drugstore to help Niki through her new problem with her "monthly" is very funny.

The always capable Al-Amin is strung-out Wanda and "Holiday Heart" dissects her more than the others; Al-Amin plays the role with trembling dimension.

Others in the cast include Roger Killian (as Silas), Jordan Blazer and Toran White.

"Holiday Heart" sports an expansive set by David Stock, a cutaway brick tenement with unfortunately some congestion smack in the middle, with two apartment doors that on opening night proved ornery and were eventually ignored. Stock's lighting design needs fine-tuning as well; darkness prevailed during many scenes and spots clicked on and off for no apparent reason. Distracting.

Interesting story, a strange slice-of-life, this "Holiday Heart." There is promise at the end, and caring and sharing get their due.

Maybe those warm and fuzzies were at the Robeson after all.

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