theatre/dance
December '03

 

Two different Christmas presentations
By David Ollington

The Missouri Repertory Theatre every year produces A Christmas Carol and the Kansas City Ballet, The Nutcracker. For years, Kent Barnhart at the Quality Hill Playhouse has graced us with a third annual Winter Solstice Kansas City performance tradition, Christmas in Song, now playing.

Three singers, Toni Gates-Grantham, Sylvia Stoner and James Andrew Wright, and one singer/pianist, Barnhart, all clad in formal evening wear, present two hours of holiday melodies. Occasionally, Barnhart takes a break from the keyboard and addresses the audience, sharing humorous stories about his life, his family and his work.

(clockwise) Kent Barnhart, Toni Gates-Grantham, James Andrew Wright and Slyvia Stoner. (photo by Larry Levinson)


As usual, Barnhart has chosen expressively skilled singers and coached them meticulously. He has selected highbrow music for the concert and created stunning arrangements, giving the vocalists onstage lush, intricate harmonies. At times the ensemble sings together with enough focus to resemble one perfectly tuned musical instrument. The choral sounds swell and fade with unified precision; notes terminate exactly with beautifully trained diction. Barnhart’s arrangements bring original flair to the traditional holiday songs, and he plays the piano with generous dexterity.

With “Ding Dong, Merrily on High” and “Good King Wenceslas,” he brought together two songs, allowing the melodies to compliment each other in a contrapuntal dance of sound.

Barnhart speaks with familiarity and demonstrates expertise with the delivery of a gag. He works the crowd well and utters most of his monologues with his tongue in his cheek, shooting playful barbs at the other performers or wryly relaying anecdotes about his own performances in the more rural segments of Missouri and Kansas.

He announces early in the show that they’ll be singing “Ave Maria” in Latin and “Stille Nacht” in German. “Not exactly the music I grew up with,” he adds, “This is not a ‘Hee Haw’ Christmas.”

Barnhart makes clear Quality Hill Playhouse’s commitment to serious music. This bent made for a languid evening; most of the songs are slow. Barnhart chose a small handful of brighter numbers, “We Need a Little Christmas” from Mame and “Deck the Halls” for example, but he filled the majority of the show with ballad after smarmy ballad.

In addition, Christmas in Song weighs very heavy with sacred music. Barnhart imparts that Act I will contain the religious repertoire and Act II, the secular. But with “Pie Jesu” and “More Than Wonderful” (a gospel number) both in Act II, the show offers a wholesome helping of Jesus. Listening to Stoner sing both “Ave Maria” and “O Holy Night” in Act I resembles a meal made entirely of meat dishes and no dessert, a musical rendition of the Atkins Diet.

Sadly lacking are any Christmas songs about love. Barnhart presents a world that includes Santa, the baby Jesus and the Virgin Mother, but we never hear about what happens under the mistletoe. Perhaps this resulted from Barnhart’s aversion to campy, silly, rural holiday choices; but a vast selection of quality composition, left out of Christmas in Song, expresses romantic love at Yuletide: “Let it Snow,” “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” or “I’ve Got my Love to Keep me Warm.”

In “Winter Wonderland,” a couple romantically strolls through a frozen, glistening meadow. The ensemble does sing the comic “The Twelve Days After Christmas,” about lovers who, after a quarrel, destroy each of the twelve gifts. Ironically, Barnhart shows lovers fighting at Christmas but avoids snuggling by the fireside.

Christmas in Song runs through Dec. 28 at the Quality Hill Playhouse, 303 W. 10th St. Tickets are $22 each with discounts for students and seniors, call 816-421-1700.

****

If Christmas belongs to children, the current production at Theatre for Young America, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, belongs in a holiday theatre listing. With seventeen kids and four adults in the cast, this enactment of Barbara Robinson’s book gives the stage to the young.

Grace (Teri Adams) gets coerced to direct the annual church Christmas pageant, an extravaganza depicting the nativity with the congregation’s children as performers. A family of thugs, the Herdman kids, having never stepped foot into the church before, decide to audition for roles in the pageant, and they use intimidating tactics to land the choice roles.

Most of the play revolves around Grace frantically piecing together a daunting production with an unruly cast of youngsters. (One wonders if director Evan Gamsu faced similar obstacles in staging the play itself; art reflects life.) The Herdmans, particularly Imogene, the oldest daughter as Mary (Ellen Pagor), eventually come to catch a spiritual glimpse of the true Christmas mysteries.

We hear about the Herdman’s frightening reputation before we see them onstage. They first appear in a threatening tableau humorously accompanied by the two deep, percussive, metallic sounds used in the television drama Law and Order.

All of the kids in the piece play their parts with energetic vigor. Adams doesn’t always match their power, but it works seeing this placid housewife helplessly deal with the chaotic youth. Once Adams as Grace loses her temper, she carries the show.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever runs until Dec. 21 at Theatre for Young America, 5909 Johnson Dr, in Mission. Tickets are $6.50 per person with group rates available for parties over 10. Call 913-831-2131.

David Ollington can be contacted at
Ollington@aol.com or publisher_editEKC@kcactive.com.

 


              
              
                 

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