Theater review: A Flat Rock Playhouse Christmas
If there’s one thing an audience values more than anything in a Christmas musical revue, it’s probably heart. If the performances feel sincere and heartfelt, then nothing else really matters. And if the heart is absent, then all the glitz in the world won’t win us over.
A Flat Rock Playhouse Christmas has plenty of heart. In its best run of songs, at the beginning of Act II, several of the lead vocalists come out one by one and command the stage for a holiday tune perfectly matched to their vocal talents and onstage personality (at least as cast in this show).
Emily Fallon leads it off with a cheeky “Man With a Bag,” followed by the movingly mountain-specific “That’s the Holidays to Me,” sung by Playhouse regular Scott Treadway (who also serves as the show’s occasional narrator and, briefly, as Frosty the Snowman).
A highlight of the entire show is Ben Hope’s aching rendition of “Belleao Wood.” With just guitar and vocals, Hope relates the beautiful story of the spontaneous Christmas Eve truce during World War I in a song originally sung and co-written by Garth Brooks. (You may recognize the fact-based story from the NC Stage Co. show All Is Calm or the Ethan Hawke movie A Midnight Clear.)
Then Travis Battle takes over the stage for a delightfully playful “Zat You Santa Claus?” (with Fallon and Maddie Franke helping out at the end), followed by a sweet version of “The Christmas Waltz” delivered as a loving duet by Jason Watson and Kathleen Watson with assistance from the young women of Pat’s School of Dance (terrific, as always).
This (mostly) intimate interlude ends with Jose Luaces’ warm and emotional “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” before the show starts ramping up again to a noisy finale and some welcome audience participation.
The 20 minutes or so of this performers’ showcase provides both the intimacy and virtuosity that Flat Rock Playhouse can deliver so perfectly, easily navigating that theatrical knife’s edge between flashy spectacle and sincere feeling.
This was the second year for a holiday show under the Flat Rock Playhouse Christmas banner, and it is indeed all new, as promised. A few unmissable seasonal favorites do return, but in fresh staging and different arrangements, so nothing feels like a retread.
For the most part, as the second act makes clear, the emphasis is on a familial atmosphere, something Treadway underscores in his occasional remarks about Playhouse history and the bonds between everyone in the company (from rafters to sound booth to costume shop to center stage). The show opens with the song “Snow” (from the movie White Christmas), which turns into a medley of winter-themed tunes with the full ensemble, starting the show with a sense of friendly familiarity — snowiness rather than showiness.
It’s a good call by the show’s creator, director and choreographer (for the second year), Matthew Glover. How he pulls together in just a few weeks more than two dozen carefully staged and separately distinguished numbers with a cast of more than 75 — including two choruses and dancers — is a Christmas miracle of its own. (Maybe it will merit a Hallmark Channel movie next year.)
There’s no need to list here every song, especially since there are no stinkers in the lot. Indeed, I insist on not knowing the song list before I see the show, preferring to be surprised along the way, and I recommend that approach.
That said, you’ll be especially delighted by the arrival of “Mele Kalikimaka,” with the acoustic string players Hope (guitar and vocals), Katie Hope-Barton (bass and vocals) and Ryan Guerra (mandolin), joined in an especially smile-inducing fashion by the Flat Rock Youth Ensemble (a talented and perky bunch who contribute nicely to several songs).
I was less thrilled with Claire Griffin’s “Carol of the Bells” (with the terrific adult chorus), since to my ears she seemed unable to keep up consistently with the rapid pace of the tune, although her “Silent Night” in Act II was as fine as any of the other solo moments I’ve here mentioned.
Music director Alex Shields has some fine moments of his own (including a too-brief instrumental Nutcracker medley with fiddler Guerra), sitting at his decked-out grand piano on an upstage platform. Indeed, I would have been even happier with more Shields and less of the prerecorded music used for some of the jazzier or orchestrated numbers. (The grating bombast of this year’s “O Holy Night” made me literally cringe in my seat, but the audience responded with noisy applause, shouts and whistles, so clearly I was in the minority on that.)
Flat Rock Playhouse can do so much with a small live band that I’ll have to hope next year’s iteration takes a turn in that direction. Meanwhile, the vast majority of this year’s Flat Rock Playhouse Christmas relies on the down-to-earth talents of its cast and behind-the-scenes folks: The elegant and abundantly varied costumes are by Rebecca Conway, the simple yet festive set by Chris Simpson, the always-spot-on lighting by CJ Barnwell, the choruses coordinated by Diane David, to mention just a few.
For holiday entertainment, you really can’t beat, say, Watson’s easy delivery of that unavoidable chestnut about chestnuts, “The Christmas Song.” It is, in a word, heartfelt.
A Flat Rock Playhouse Christmas runs through Dec. 22, with shows at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. For tickets and more information, visit flatrockplayhouse.org
(Photos: Treadshots, courtesy of Flat Rock Playhouse)