Despite all the unrest in the world, we still have Christmas. And there's nothing like Christmas at Quality Hill Playhouse.
Forget the canned holiday music torturing shoppers at the mall. Producing artistic director J. Kent Barnhart offers Christmas music with a message, music that's not afraid to mention the “reason for the season.”
Barnhart, serving as emcee, pianist and vocalist, is joined by a trio of talented singers, all operatically trained for the theater’s annual production of “Christmas in Song.” They perform a pleasant mix of familiar favorites like “Silent Night (Stille Nacht)” combined with lesser-heard tunes.
Lindsey McKee and LaTeesha McDonald Jackson team up for a duet of “The First Noel/Pachelbel's Canon,” a stirring arrangement that juxtaposes the traditional carol against a popular piece of classical music. The result is simply beautiful. Vigthor Zophoniasson and McKee join for another duet, “Carol for Advent (What Child Is This?),” based on the traditional English carol with additional lyrics that capture the magic and mystery of the Christ Child’s birth.
At the heart of the first act is a series of five carols composed by Alfred Burt (with lyrics written by others). He wrote one carol a year from 1942 to 1954 and sent each as the family's annual Christmas card. The words still resonate, especially in light of recent events, particularly Zophoniasson's rendition of “Christ in the Stranger's Guise” and Jackson's “Some Children See Him.”
The first act works up to a big finish (it seems wrong to say “showstoppers” when you're talking about sacred music). Zophoniasson, who has a beautiful voice that I wish had been featured more, gets the joyful “The Birthday of a King,” Jackson the reverent “Gesu Bambino,” based on “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and McKee the powerful “O Holy Night.”
The second act lightens up as Barnhart opens with a jazzy piano solo, the iconic “Linus and Lucy,” appropriate as this year marks the 50th anniversary of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
Tom Lehrer’s “A Christmas Carol” takes a hilarious look at the greedy, money-grubbing aspect of the holiday. Barnhart explains how to get through the holiday season with “A Miracle for Christmas,” which had the audience laughing out loud. McKee, in her proper British accent, deftly sets up “Good King Kong Looked Out.”
There’s more nostalgia for baby boomers with songs from a long-ago Christmas special featuring the late John Denver and the Muppets, but they’re songs that deserve to be remembered. Jackson excels on “When the River Meets the Sea,” with its gospel feel, Zophoniasson's clear tenor soars on the contemplative and sweetly haunting “Noel: Christmas Eve, 1913,” and McKee imbues “The Peace Carol” with a poignant hopefulness.
Another song with a powerful message is “All Year Long,” a heartwarming prayer for the upcoming year.
Right before the festive finale of “Deck the Halls,” the four harmonize on “White Christmas,” but they do it right. That means including the often-skipped first verse to set up the meaning of the song, which has nothing to do with wanting frozen precipitation on Christmas day and everything to do with longing for a more innocent holiday from the past.
Costume designer Georgianna Londre Buchanan chose dark sparkly gowns for Jackson and McKee in the first act, then the traditional Christmas colors of red and green for the second act.