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'Pine Mountain' a sweet tribute

After a rollicking couple of shows, Oregon Cabaret Theatre has decided to slow down, kick off its shoes, and give us a charming new holiday musical, a work conceived and written by OCT's managing director, Rick Robinson. Interspersed with songs by Irving Berlin, Robinson's "The Pine Mountain Lodge" is a sweet little love story.

Apparently written by him for his wife, OCT Artistic Director Valerie Rachelle, the musical centers around a burgeoning love affair between a military man named Danny Hewitt (Lucas Blair) who is returning home to run his deceased father's remote mountain resort, and Moony Miller, a traveling actress who's set to perform there (Natasha Harris). Guided by a pair of ghosts called Edie and George (Jessica Blaszak and John Stadelman), the two begin exploring an attraction, only to be initially thwarted by Moony's Type-A dance partner, Brent (Tony Carter).

Linking the past to the present is the resort's longtime caretaker (John Lambie). 

While this production lacks the flat-out intensity of OCT's more recent productions, it is a delightful show, nevertheless. With classic songs, tap dancing, and a costuming and style that creates an authentic and pleasing 1940s vibe, "Pine Mountain Lodge" is a story of romance that is made all the more sweet by the fact that it also acts as a love letter from Robinson to Rachelle; his affection for her is sunk into the bones of this show, which helps to make what might have been an otherwise rather ordinary period piece feel much more intimate and sincere. 

As Danny, Lucas Blair plays it square-jawed and traditional; quite a departure from the flamboyant gaudiness of his recent work at the theater. Blair's character is surprisingly shy and retiring for a fellow just back from the front. His gentle infatuation with Moony is endearing. 

As Moony, Natasha Harris is a sassy redhead with a sorry past. Her initial "tough broad" exterior melts away in the second act of the play to reveal a hopeless romantic, despite the disappointment she has felt in the past. As Brent, Tony Carter is a carbon-copy arrogant alpha, strutting around the stage with coiled intensity and permanent sneer. He's looking out for Number One, and he doesn't care who knows it. As the Caretaker, John Lambie is a gentle presence who seems to have one foot in the present, and one in the past; his melancholic personality is a great balance to the bawdier aspects of the play. 

While these four do a lovely job with their roles, the night really belongs to Blaszak and Stadelman. Playing a pair of theater folk who had died near the scene of the action some 20 years prior, the two have a ball hamming it up in the afterlife as George and Edie, playing off one another like an undead version of George and Martha from "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf." Blaszak, in particular, is strikingly funny and endearing as a slightly past her prime actress whose death has left her a permanent ghost-of-a-certain-age. Part gangster's moll, part den mother, she plays her part with a warmth one would hardly expect from a shut-in wraith.

Stadelman, too, is amusing and stoic, trapped forever in his white dinner jacket. The two spirits have had an on-again, off-again love affair of their own. Now they're stuck in a sort of MGM golden-era purgatory, the absurdity of their situation made all the more hilarious by the fact that while they clearly love each other, they can't seem to stay in the same room together for long enough to realize it. In the end, it's clear that the fate of the two wispy thespians might be a foreshadowing of what's in store for Danny and Moony if the two don't decide to give in wholeheartedly to each other. 

"The Pine Mountain Lodge" is a kinder, gentler, subtler play than we have seen of late at Oregon Cabaret. It's not for everyone, but if you're in the mood for an emotionally generous, well-crafted seasonal play that will warm you up on a cold November (or December) night, you could do a lot worse.

"Pine Mountain Lodge" continues through Dec. 31. For tickets, visit www.oregoncabaret.com or call 541-488-2902.

Email Ashland freelance writer Jeffrey Gillespie at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.

Natasha Harris and Lucas Blair star in 'The Pine Mountain Lodge,' playing at Oregon Cabaret Theatre through December. Courtesy photo