Last Thursday night I went to the final dress rehearsal of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s 2008 “Yuletide Celebration.” It was Media Night but it was also the night for performers’ family members to see the show and to help their loved ones get used to performing with audience reactions. There were a lot of people there!
It was a special holiday treat for all of us, adults and children alike. This more-than-musical show somehow manages to be both sophisticated and truly family-friendly.
On my way into the Hilbert Circle Theatre I stopped to pat Blossom and Ember, the two reindeer who were visiting from the North Pole. “I don’t go for traditional reindeer names,” the woman who was in the little corral with them told me.
“Are you their agent?” I asked.
“Well, I work for Santa,” she said. “But yes, I’m their handler.”
I was surprised by how cute reindeer faces are. I took off my glove to feel the reindeers’ smooth coats. I leaned back to stay clear of their big antlers.
Inside the theatre, Mauna the usher told me that there were no assigned seats for this special performance. She recommended I go upstairs and find a seat in the “dress circle” aka the best (and usually most expensive) seats in the house.
But when I went upstairs, all of those seats either had people sitting in them or coats draped over them. A few even had little home-made papers on them that said, “Reserved for the ____ family.”
I looked down over the balcony, though, and saw that the box seats were empty. I had always wanted to sit in a box seat!
Someone told me that one box was roped off in case the governor stopped by. (He did not, but I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he has purchased tickets for later in the run.)
However, the seats in the other box were like the rest of the house that night: first come, first served. I slid into one and felt very lucky.
I discovered that one’s view of the stage is somewhat limited in a box seat, especially when the box is decorated with garlands that stick up on the front corner, but I still felt pretty special sitting up there. I discovered later that I was sharing “my” box with the fiancé of one of the dancers and the mother, husband, and toddler of one of the violinists.
Many of the children sitting in the floor seats below us were adorable in their best holiday outfits. Even better, every time I glanced down during the show, the children were all enthralled. I learned later that my friend, Lisa, and her husband take their young son to this show every year. I may have to make it a part of my own holiday tradition, too. I would love to bring my godson when he is old enough not to need a car seat.
Before the show, I could hear the orchestra tuning behind the heavy curtain. A voice reminded us to turn off our cell phones and added, “If you have any Scrooges or Grinches in your party, please feel free to leave them at the coat check.”
Two men came out to give the curtain talk. There were no programs since it was a dress rehearsal, so I won’t be able to name everyone the way I usually try to do, but I think the one man said his name was David Levy (sp?), the stage director. The other man said he was Ty Johnson, the executive producer. They thanked Duke Energy for being the title sponsors for the “Yuletide Celebration” for a third year. They encouraged us all to laugh and cheer and applaud. In fact, they led us in some practice “hoot & hollering” to get us warmed up.
The host of the show was Tony-nominated Ann Hampton Callaway. Oh, my goodness, her voice is beautiful. Listening to her sing reminded me of the way I felt the first time I went snorkeling over a coral reef. I looked through the water at the gorgeous colors and thought, “All this is real. It is not a digitally-enhanced movie.” Listening to Callaway sing, too, I thought with amazement, “This gorgeousness is real!”
I enjoyed her work in the first act, but I especially loved her creativity and her feisty humor in the second act. She asked for keywords from the audience that had to do with Christmas in Indiana. People called out “Snow!” “Lights on the Circle!” “The Colts!” and more.
Then she (as she described it) stalled for time by “tuning” her ears. (I’m laughing again, remembering that part!)
Then she sat down at the piano in the middle of the stage and sang a delightful new song using all of words that the audience had given her! It made me want to go back every night to hear each new song.
Partway through the impromptu song she called over her shoulder to the silent orchestra, “I’m in the key of G. Feel free to join in!”
The orchestra members all just sort of looked at each other and shrugged, smiling. I guess orchestra musicians rarely jam, and that’s okay. On the other hand, maybe they will get used to the idea over the course of the show’s run and throw in some impromptu embellishments in later performances.
Whenever it was the orchestra’s turn to play on their own, they sounded rich and lovely in their own way. Again, I don’t have a program to check, but at least one of their pieces was from their new, limited edtion CD, A Christmas Greeting. It was called “The Sussex Mummer’s Carol.” Maestro Everly told us that part of what makes the CD so special is that the ISO’s Conductor Laureate, Raymond Leppard, arranged all of the music for it. Although I loved the visual and verbal feast that was the rest of “Yuletide Celebration,” when the orchestra played by itself it was nice to be able to focus for a little while on the intricacies of the instrumental music.
And, of course, when the orchestra played with the singers, dancers, and guest musicians, that was wonderful, too. The Capitol Quartet is four men who play various kinds of saxophones. I couldn’t help tapping my toes when they joined Calloway and the orchestra for an especially jazzy version of “Here Comes Santa Claus.” I laughed with delight when the saxes added a mischievous tippy-toe feeling to an excerpt from “The Nutcracker.” I glanced down and saw a tiny boy standing on his father’s knees and bouncing in time to the music.
At least two songs in the show made me weep. Wet face, wet tissues, the works.
One was an original song by Calloway called, I think, “God Bless My Family.” Part of the chorus is “I will find a way to let every face I’ve ever loved shine out of me.” I now want to do that, too.
The other was “O Holy Night” sung by special guest Daniel Okulitch. He is tall and good-looking, with a full, deep voice that he seems able to place effortlessly, exactly where it needs to be to satisfy his listeners. I swooned every time he was on stage.
For this particular song, he appeared wearing a pea coat and a wool scarf around his neck. The lights gave me the feeling that he was out for a walk through virgin snow on a cold, starry evening. Okulitch himself gave me the feeling that he was experiencing the gift of holiness for the first time. I have probably heard “O Holy Night” a thousand times, but he made it seem like a true discovery. His vulnerability and wonder – and his magnificent voice – moved me, as I say, to sobs.
I’m sorry that I can’t tell you who designed the lights or the costumes. They both enhanced the show, though. The women’s ball gowns, especially, are splendid, and I loved the light stencils on the floor. The Capitol Quartet guys are beyond dapper in their colorful spats and pinstripes.
And the tap-dancing Santas! They are everything I had been promised and more. Not only do they tap dance, they form and re-form precise lines and patterns like a kaleidoscope. I wish I could tell you who they all are. The singer-dancers actually perform several delicious numbers in a variety of personas.
(However, I can tell you that Tyler Braun is one of them. You may remember his name from Civic’s production of “Little Shop of Horrors” or the Hendricks Civic Theatre’s production of “Joseph.” I happened to meet his mother last weekend when I was judging an Encore show, and since I couldn’t talk about the show we were seeing, I mentioned being at the Symphony. She told me that Tyler is in the chorus for this show! Go, Tyler!)
During the intermission, I chatted a bit with the man sitting in front of me, the one who is the fiancé of one of the dancers. I asked if he, too, is a dancer.
“I swing dance and do ballroom a little,” he said, “but I’m the business major. I’m going to support her being the artist.” Lucky woman!
He told me that his fiancée has been dancing with the show for several years and that he will probably see this year’s show four or five times. He also answered some of the questions I had about the show: the songs are new every year but the tap-dancing Santas are a part of every show. A guest host alternates years with Sandi Patty and there is usually at least one other guest artist. This year it’s the Capitol Sax Quartet and the host, of course, is Ann Hampton Callaway. Daniel Okulitch is in the ISO’s show every year but “he travels.”
My press release from Tim Northcutt and Jessica DiSanto says that Okultich is a Canadian-born bass baritone and “one of the classical music world’s fast-rising stars. (He) launched his career on Broadway in 2002 in Baz Luhrmann’s production of La Boheme and since has performed with major opera companies and orchestras throughout North America and Europe.”
By the way, my press release also says that the Capitol Quartet is “comprised of former saxophonists from the premiere military bands of the United States Armed Forces” and that it has…
“…performed in major concert venues on the East Coast and with many of America’s finest orchestras, including the ISO in both Pops Series and New Year’s Eve Celebration concerts. Founded in 1991, the Quartet gained national attention when it won the prestigious Baltimore Chamber Music Awards Competition and since has showcased its artistry via innovative repertoire ranging from traditional French quartet compositions to contemporary works for saxophone and transcriptions of classical, jazz and ragtime favorites.”
My press release also says this about Ann Hampton Callaway:
“One of the most versatile artists in the entertainment industry, Ann Hampton Callaway is a renowned singer, pianist, composer, arranger and actress who is best known for her starring role in the Broadway musical Swing, for which she earned a Tony Award nomination for “Best Featured Actress in a Musical,” as well as for writing the theme song for the television comedy series The Nanny. She also has performed on numerous national television shows, including The Today Show, Larry King Live, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Live From Lincoln Center and in a PBS pops special with The Boston Pops, among others. Although she will be making her Duke Energy Yuletide Celebration debut, she has previously appeared with the ISO in Pops Series and New Year’s Eve Celebration concerts.”
She mentioned during the show that she lives in New York but coming to Indiana feels like coming home because her mother lives here.
I don’t want to give away everything about this show (and I haven’t! for example, I haven’t even begun to tell you how completely charmed I was by the flying reindeer!), but I have to also mention Callaway’s funny, Christmas-y version of “Blues in the Night,” performed on the piano with the orchestra. I’ve been belting “My mama done told me…” around my house and wishing I could bring even a fraction of the torchy flavor and power to it that she does. I felt that red blues song all the way down in my base chakra!
My friend Lou says that I should also check out the CD she recorded with her sister, Liz Callaway. It’s called “Sibling Revelry.” I will, Lou, and thanks for the suggestion! I’m going to look for her “Blues in the Night” CD, too.
According to my press release, some performances of “Yuletide Celebration” had sold out before the show even opened, so be sure to make a reservation if you want to go. For more information, call the Hilbert Circle Theatre Box Office at (317) 639-4300. Outside Indianapolis call toll free 1-800-366-8457, or visit the Orchestra’s website at www.IndianapolisSymphony.org. To fax your ticket order, please call (317) 263-4900.
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com