Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Return to Yuletide Celebration

Finding myself with some days off at the beginning of December, I decided on a road trip to the best concert for getting in the Christmas spirit, Yuletide Celebration with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra!  Two years ago I made the trip for the 25th anniversary concert (that review here) and while I wasn't expecting the elaborateness of that milestone, the 27th version came pretty close.

Justin Stahl, Lobby
The lobby decorations were as gorgeous as ever, and the cookies just as delicious.  Entertaining concert goers and showing off the Wurlitzer Theatre Pipe Organ to great effect was Justin Stahl who played before and after the concerts.  When leaving I noticed his closed music book, it was the "Reader's Digest Merry Christmas Songbook" which I also have! (although anything I've played didn't sound nearly as good).

Angela and Ben
The show opened with a new arrangement of "O Come, All Ye Faithful" by music director and maestro, Jack Everly.  It had English lyrics, Latin lyrics, and even the "wonderful, councillor..." quote from The Messiah.  Featuring the whole cast, it also served as an introduction to the voices of the hosts, opera star Angela Brown and Broadway leading man Ben Crawford.  I've seen Ben in other Symphonic Pops Consortium concerts, and have always enjoyed his voice.   This concert was no exception.  Angela and Ben joked around introducing each other with Angela playing the opera diva and claiming herself as sole host because she's from Indianapolis, which garnered audience applause.  At the matinee I attended however, Ben's announcement at being from Tuscan, Arizona created a stronger audience reaction.  Maybe he stacked the crowd with friends and family.  Being an out of towner I cheered for him :)

Anthony Kniffen & Grinch
After a solo by Angela of "Sleigh Ride" (because really what concert is complete without the Leroy Anderson classic, which incidentally was written in Georgia when the temperature was 105 deg. F) the orchestra was showcased in a medley from The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.  I haven't watched the movie in years and wasn't recognizing anything.  Then all of a sudden I noticed the tuba player, Anthony Kniffen, disappear from his spot at the back of the stage balcony.  He reappeared centre stage wrapped in a sousaphone and wearing a Santa hat to play "You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch".  The Grinch himself (he was wondering around the lobby earlier), even poked his head out from the window above the stage drumming his fingers together in an evil fashion.

Ben and cast decked out in Christmas bling
The costumes and gowns were extravagant, and none more so than Angela's dress for "Sparklejollytwinklejingley" from Elf: The Musical.  It was all gold and so glittery under the lights it was hard to look at.  Ben, by contrast was wearing a classic black tux and was accused of needing some Christmas bling.  He obliged by removing the tux to reveal black sequined pants and a red sparkly jacket.  The singers and dancers all sported major sparkles and glitter during an energetic dance interlude.  I hadn't heard anything from Elf before, but quite liked this and the selection later of "There is a Santa Claus".  That piece has a lyric about Rudolph's nose really glowing and a red spot light swept around the hall to emphasis the point.  It was a simple but effective bit of lighting design.

Christmas Eve Radio Highlights
The highlight of the first act for me was being taken back to December 24, 1942 for the "Christmas Eve Radio Broadcast".  A WISO sign descended from the stage complete with "On Air" and "Applause" indictors.  After a jive style dance number to "Hark the Harold Angels Sing" (or at least part of it) by Anne Nicole Beck and Joseph Perkins Jr., Ben and several Yuletide ladies performed "Fum, Fum, Fum".  The "broadcast" then officially started complete with an ad for Hazel Bishop lipstick.  I looked it up and it was the brand of the first non-smear lipstick although it wasn't an incorporated company until 1950.  But who says you can't adjust history to suit the needs of a show? :)  The catchy Chiquita Banana jingle was part of the segment as well, complete with Ben in a grass skirt and coconut bra.  Three singers with great harmony did an Andrew's Sisters style song similar to "Boogie Woogie Buggle Boy" only about "Roly Poly Santa Claus".  Mike Runyan (ISO librarian) was featured with his "Cowboy Harmonica Christmas" that contains half a dozen harmonicas in various sizes and songs such as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", "Up On the Housetop", and "Holly, Jolly Christmas".  That was one of my favourite parts two years ago and it was really fun to see him again.  The segment concluded with Angela singing a touching rendition of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" with harmonica accompaniment.

The traditional tap dancing kick line of Santa's brought down the curtain for intermission.  The second half opened with "The Enchanted Toy Shoppe" a feature which I believe was new at last season's concert.  Angela began by telling the story of a toy maker and how one magical night his toys came to life.  She also sang the beginning of "Once Upon a December" from Anastasia (Liz Callaway was a host last year and the singing voice of Anastasia in the movie, which may have influenced the song choice, but it fit in well).  The fairy waved her wand to a slow version of the "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" theme bringing the toys to life.   Included in the toys were a music box dancer and doll, who danced, en pointe even, to something by Tchaikovsky from "Swan Lake" I think.  By magic a juggler (Cirque de la Symphonie artist Vova Tsarkov) stepped out of building blocks that were stacked together before our eyes.  I liked the following rag doll segment the best of the Cirque acts.

Check out that Statue of Liberty style tiara!
(Angela photo from her facebook page)
Alina Sergeeva as the doll 'danced' with the juggler as he picked her up and she flopped back over into incredible positions that showed off her amazing flexibility.  The way she carried momentum and flopped at the slightest touch was so realistic of how a doll would behave.  "Hedwig's Theme" was used as the music for extracting the aerial silks artist (Rachel Bowman) from the "empty" Toy Parts box.  Then Ben returned to sing "Somewhere in My Memory" for the silks act.  It's a lovely song and the move where the aerialist wrapped herself in the silk and then fell as it unravelled always make me catch my breath.  The variety of pieces that appear in arrangements by Jack Everly and company is second to none!

Presumably while they cleared the Toy Shoppe props away behind the curtain, Angela took the front of the stage and performed "My Simple Christmas Wish".  Apparently this is a popular cabaret act song, but I was unfamiliar with it.  Some lyrics were changed to be family friendly and a new line about not being Oprah so don't look under your seat (a joke about Oprah giving gifts away to audience members) shot by so fast it took a second to process, but once people got it, there were giggles.

Not to be outdone, the curtain opened on a now empty stage and Ben walked out to sing "Believe" from The Polar Express.  The most popular version is likely with Josh Groban, but I much preferred Ben's.  Groban's seems heavy to me, but Ben had hope and a bit more lightness, not to mention his wonderful voice.

Zach and Jack
An exciting instrumental version of "Good King Wenceslas" featuring ISO concertmaster Zach De Pue was introduced by Jack Everly.  He said the lyrics were added to the tune in 1853, and a new Christmas song was born, but we'd never heard it like this.  So true!  The arrangement, by Alex De Pue (Zach's brother), had more notes than it seemed possible to play and ones higher than I thought a violin could hit.  It was great to see a little Time For Three style jammin' going on!  Check out the same arrangement with Alex playing the fiddle accompanied by a hammered dulcimer (it's better with full orchestra but I was excited to find the arrangement in any form!).

Not that the audience needed any waking up after that, but the ensemble got their own lively number with "All I Want for Christmas is You".  The highlighted voices weren't all my taste, but the guys shoes sure stood out...red with white inserts sure fit the Christmas bling criteria.

Slowing things down Angela and Ben combined forces for "The Prayer" with Ben taking the Italian part of the duet and creating a beautiful deep sound.  Their voices and talents were highlighted the best here.

Full cast in "The First Noel"
Ben continued with the beginning of "The First Noel" singing it straight and with meaning, until the curtain rose on a stained glass style backdrop and the full cast joined for the concluding verses and chorus.  After an almost instant standing ovation (the powerful arrangement by David Clydesdale almost draws you out of your seat) we were seated again and treated to an acapella "Silent Night" by Angela before joining our voices with everyone else's for "We Wish You a Merry Christmas".  I love singing with a full orchestra!

Thank you to all the friendly people I met (and especially to one I still haven't), the performers and everyone behind the scenes who work together to create such a wonderful show.  My mission was accomplished, Christmas spirit attained and should anyone be in the need for some I highly recommend this method of acquisition!  Because it's really true that...

(All photos except where noted from the Indianapolis Symphony, some via The Examiner and The Star.)

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