November 23, 2005
strong in Christmas song
Our culture marks the cycle of the year with various holidays and celebrations. Religious ritual, additional leisure time, political landmarks, retail promotions, decorations and entertainment all figure into our weekly planners. Our current annual celebration reigns supreme over the rest of the calendar. The weeks that include Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years resonate with so much frequency that we call this time the "holiday season."
Music in particular reflects the winning status of Christmas and her two sister holidays. An entire repertoire of melody and song erupts around us in late November. Though we may hear "Peter Cottontail" at Easter, "When Irish Eyes are Smilin'" during St. Patrick's Day or the patriotic marches of the Fourth of July, no other calendar section carries with it the range and volume of songs that we hear at the end of the year.
Now in their eleventh season, under the visionary direction of J. Kent Barnhart, the Quality Hill Playhouse annually realizes creative renditions of Christmas music with their Christmas in Song. On an intimate stage, around a central grand piano, four singers don formal apparel to deliver an evening of seasonal music.
Barnhart's notable skills have realized the Quality Hill Playhouse's decade-plus success. He uses a keen ear to select singers for his shows; all perform with expert musicianship. His talented hands bring forth glorious and versatile sounds from the piano, playing well both classical accompaniment and rolling out a delightful rendition of "Linus and Lucy" from A Charlie Brown Christmas. He arranges some of the pieces himself and adroitly picks other innovative musical works arranged by others.
Christmas in Song feasts the ear rather than the eye, eliminating the need for a choreographer, but Michael Clawson's arrangement of "The First Noel," sung by Melinda MacDonald and Matt Leisy, using the Pachelbel canon as connective tissue, sounds like dancing. In between segments of melody, Barnhart warmly works the crowd with anecdotal humor.
MacDonald offers the strongest onstage work of the show. Her voice sweetly glides over the notes with a conversational ease. Her acting maintains a consistent presence without overpowering the small theatrical space.
Stacey Uthe makes her Quality Hill Playhouse debut with Christmas in Song. She sings with a strong operatic voice and demonstrates the necessary skill to contain it for the cabaret style. Barnhart appropriately assigned her "Ave Maria" and "O Holy Night."
Barnhart may be wearing too many hats. In addition to directing, arranging, emceeing and accompanying, he vocally provides the bass line for the ensemble songs. His voice lacks the focus of the three well-trained singers around him.
He has taken on, also, the responsibility of lighting design, which could use an infusion of variety. A few too many ballads weigh down the show, and Barnhart lit each solo adagio song the same way — a dim stage with a single circle of light around the singer which fades slowly at the end of the song. The numerous slower numbers with the same sparse lighting made for a concert literally lacking brightness. Atif Rome designed a simple set with curtained windows on the back wall, which Barnhart backlit in an effective, luminous way, but not during any solos. Just the addition of light behind the curtains for one or more of the darkened ballads would have offered a needed variance.
We hear traditional and predominantly religious music for Act One, contemporary pieces for Act Two. Barnhart has solidified this structure as traditional for the Quality Hill Playhouse Christmas show.
The first act starts to feel like church; the sacred music is Christian and Christian alone. Christmas songs far outnumber Hanukah songs, but the inclusion of just one piece from the Jewish tradition such as "Hanukah, O Hanukah" or "The Dreidel Song" would have at least acknowledged diversity of belief. Also, Jewish folk music tends to be up-tempo and highly rhythmic, and a number in this style would have contrasted the volume of ballads.
The enormity of available holiday music choices includes a range of fashion. Missing also from Christmas in Song are numbers with a little bit of heat. Every year, the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall show us that Christmas can be sexy. For future concerts, Barnhart should look into staging songs like "Santa Baby," "I've Got my Love to Keep me Warm" and "Baby, It's Cold Outside," all of which express a holiday intimacy, the reason we hang the mistletoe.
Even Act Two includes songs that slow down the pulse of the evening. Though contemporary, Act Two's numbers are mostly ballads. Kansas City composer Mark Hayes arranged the finale, a version of "Go Tell it on the Mountain." Hayes has achieved international fame as a composer and arranger of church music, having made his mark by incorporating the jazz idiom with hymns. Ending the concert this way made emphatic the concert's singular, spiritual paradigm.
Christmas in Song runs until Dec. 24 — Barnhart even makes a joke about the pointlessness of doing the show once Christmas is over. Call 816-421-1700 or visit www.QualityHillPlayhouse.com for tickets.
David Ollington can be contacted at Ollington@aol.com.
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