Friday, December 9, 2011
Theater review part deux: Rockin’ Christmas Party at Addison Theatre Center
Rockin' Christmas Party was the perfect combination of holiday revue and weekend dance party.
If you are a person who is looking to celebrate the holidays without being Scrooged out of your Nutcracker, WaterTower Theatre's Rockin' Christmas Party (running through December 18 at Addison Theatre Center) may be just the thing to knock the frost off your stockings. A fast-paced, rollicking revue, Rockin' Christmas Party is glittered with yuletide magic – and a tree made of bubble wrap. Yes, bubble wrap.
The very tall, ready-to-ship Christmas tree was the centerpiece of Michael Sullivan's set design. Topped with a mirrored disco ball instead of an angel or a star, the tree was adorned with large ornamental orbs in hazy, dusty shades of purple, blue, and green. The decorative ball theme continued on to the proscenium where Jason S. Foster's lighting design marvelously transitioned the painted balls through the colors of a jewel-toned rainbow at different intervals throughout the show. A screen behind the proscenium was used as a backdrop for various computer-generated images, all of which flowed seamlessly with Foster's lighting scheme.
The Rockin' Christmas band, led by Music Director Scott A. Eckert, was stationed at stage right and remained visible throughout the show. I always enjoy watching the band, not only because I like to compare "guitar face" from theater to theater but also because it's easier to highlight individual performances or instrumental solos when the band is visible. In this case, it was Eckert's harmonica solo in Act Two that really caught my attention. These five talented gentlemen determined and maintained the musical step and stride for the cast, and with 54 different songs in this production, they were busier than Santa's elves on Christmas Eve.
Rockin' Christmas Party may be the only show I'd seen anytime recently where I didn't have at least a minor complaint about the sound design. The band seemed perfectly in balance, and there wasn't a mic pop or a missed cue or any manner of feedback during this production. A big thank you to Sound Designer Scott Guenther, who helped keep the focus of this review on positive elements instead of on the distractions a poor sound design could sometimes create.
Director Terry Martin assembled a six pack of DFW's finest performers to tell this tale of Christmas wishes. Each actor, save one (though I won't give anything away here) was granted the opportunity to relay his or her holiday fantasy to the audience, and then act out that fantasy in song with the help of the rest of the cast. The fantasies ranged in scope from a television special a la Perry Como to an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry with a stop at Studio 54 in between.
Looking through the playbill and speaking to one of the actors after the show, I realized five of this sextet -- Denise Lee, Markus Lloyd, Sara Shelby-Martin, Amy Stevenson, and Jenny Thurman -- have been a part of Rockin' Christmas Party at least once before. Gary Lynn Floyd was the only Rockin' newcomer, but he seemed quite at home amongst this stage family.
Usually in this type of revue, it's easy to pick out a performer who outshines or out-sings their cast mates. Each actor had moments of individual brilliance in this production, but I cannot single out one over the other five; their chemistry and cohesion as a team were that solid.
Probably the most unique thing about this "Christmas" show was that less than a quarter of the tunes therein were actually holiday themed. The majority of the songs were standards from various genres like disco, soul, dance, and even a little country. The performers had no problem keeping the audience engaged with songs like "YMCA" and "ABC," and audience participation was definitely encouraged.
Back to those individual moments of brilliance! Floyd's rendition of "The Christmas Song" was his most memorable and in fact the best of the solo traditional holiday numbers. His voice was fluid and very easy to listen to -- a perfect choice for the most recorded Christmas song in history.
Denise Lee was funky diva perfection during songs like "Lady Marmalade" and "Movin' On Up" (also known as the theme from TV's The Jeffersons). Her smile was slightly mischievous throughout the show and she garnered many laughs for her quips and one-liners.
We were first introduced to Sara Shelby-Martin during her high-energy rendition of "Tutti Frutti." What impressed me most about Shelby-Martin's performance was her depth of range -- going from "Love Shack" to "Ode to Billy Joe" was quite a leap but her strong, clear voice more than met the needs of both songs.
It was during her fantasy of a Grand Ole Opry Christmas that Jenny Thurman opened up and flexed her comedic chops in concert with her vocal cords. "Blue Christmas" was equal parts humor and beauty, with majestic harmonies provided by Shelby-Martin and Amy Stevenson, and Thurman's physicality during "End of the World" and "Stand By Your Man" was downright hysterical.
Stevenson shone most during her thoughtful version of "Try a Little Tenderness," the first of a four-song vignette that proved to be the most moving section of the production. The cast donned spangled silver choir robes at this point and moved into "Bridge Over Troubled Water," followed by the group's unbeatable "Silent Night" -- the overall standout song of the show.
"I Feel Good" showed us that Markus Lloyd was the Hardest Working Man at WaterTower and his incredible energy didn't stop there as his turns as Michael Jackson, Don Cornelius, and even Shaft were equally impressive. Lloyd was constantly on the move and singing -- beautifully, I might add -- all the while. I was tired just watching him.
Michael A. Robinson's contribution to Rockin' Christmas Party wasn't as out-front as the performers listed in the previous paragraphs but it was in-your-face nonetheless. His costuming and over-the-top wiggery (that is a real word -- I just looked it up) gave the show an extra element of sparkle and whimsy that made it even more fun. The wigs played such a large part in the show they are probably sitting in a dressing room right now demanding AEA recognition for their participation.
All holiday traditions have to start somewhere and my family just may have found a new one. Rockin' Christmas Party was the perfect combination of holiday revue and weekend dance party, stacked solid with sing-along hits from start to finish. Don't miss this opportunity to see some incredibly talented wigs ... err ... I mean performers!
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