Through the twists and turns of interactions on Twitter, Amanda and I found ourselves last Sunday in the audience of “Home for the Holidays,” this year’s Christmas show at American Music Theatre.
I share the full story at the end of this post. Let me start out with the show itself.
Singing, Dancing, and Lighting
The overall production quality of American Music Theatre’s show is high. Amanda makes this a jointly authored blog post by weighing in on that a few paragraphs below. To my eyes and ears, the singers and dancers are talented, as are the musicians, who are kept on stage rather than sequestered in a pit.
The show runs a little longer than two hours, and is split into two acts with an intermission. Amanda and I both enjoyed the show, and I think I know the criteria to determine whether you will, too:
- You must truly enjoy Christmas, including both the Nativity and the Santa Claus sides of the holiday.
- You should enjoy a certain level of nostalgia, though your tolerance doesn’t need to be very high. If you, like me, can’t stand “The Christmas Shoes” but can manage “Tennessee Christmas,” you’ll be fine.
- You should enjoy at least some musicals, because this show is almost entirely singing and dancing.
Mass Appeal Within the Bounds of Actually Celebrating Christmas
The fundamental artistry of the show is the careful engineering of its appeal. Andrea McCormick, the writer and director, has put together a show that gives the respect to traditional standards that most of the adults in the audience expect, while also adding playfulness for the children. The themes of the Nativity and of family are treated with reverence, while food, candy, and Santa have much more latitude. To its audience of people who honor and celebrate Christmas, the show is inoffensive without being dull.
The show begins with a small exterior scene in front of the main curtain, with caroling, windows with candles gleaming inside, and gentle snowfall nearly “like a picture-print by Courier and Ives.” Then the curtain rises and we’re in a grand hall of a mansion with a beauty pageant–style staircase in the middle, behind which are large arched windows looking on the glittering stars of a night sky. The remainder of the first act is song after song – seventeen in all – without a break in between.
The first act feels to me like an instance of “give the people what they want,” i.e., lots of good old fashioned Christmas songs including “Jingle Bells,” “White Christmas,” “Joy to the World,” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” The show’s title song appears as a medley with “Silver Bells,” and it works.
The first act includes at least three attempts to be more than just a fancy Christmas concert of a mix of Christmas songs. Of those attempts, two succeed and one doesn’t.
The first success is the acting of vocalist Michael J. Austin, who manages to break through the blur of an ensemble cast to establish a memorable character through strong (albeit silly) comedic acting choices. There are no lines in the first act, so he uses the only tools at his disposal – body movement, facial expression, and interaction with other actors, particularly the children. I caught myself bursting out with a laugh a couple times because of his acting.
The second success is the way vocalist Wess Cooke strides confidently right up to the line of pure cheesiness and never crosses it. He is given a solo of “C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S” (the link is to the lyrics, in Comic Sans, which is fitting), and somehow he kept me from rolling my eyes. I don’t know how he does it, because as soon as the music started for that song I braced myself for a lot of eye-rolling, then it simply didn’t happen. (The song is also followed by a talented group of children singing a beautiful arrangement of the “Christmas Canon,” which makes it easy to forget “C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S.”)
The third attempt to tie the first act together with a stronger thread is the inclusion of a mini-narrative of a soldier returning home to be with the family assembled in the Christmassy mansion. As one of the female vocalists (help me out in the comments, please… I couldn’t positively identify her) finishes a solo of “Merry Christmas, Darling,” another vocalist dressed as a solider carries his canvas duffel bag down the aisle through the audience and onto stage. It’s a potentially powerful moment. She has just been singing longingly about her husband who is away, serving in the military, wishing he were there to wish a merry Christmas. Then suddenly he appears. Their eyes meet. They run together and embrace. And he breaks into song. He begins singing… “O Christmas Tree.” Yep. He sees his wife for the first time in forever and can’t help himself from expressing adoration for… their Christmas tree.
The second act is much more successful in terms of story and theme. The first half of the act involves the story of children magically transported to the North Pole, where they are recruited to help complete the preparations for the biggest night of the year. Some character have spoken lines and there’s a conflict and resolution. The set, costumes, and lighting are bold and trippy. Not as trippy as the Pink Elephants on Parade scene fromDumbo, but in that spirit, enough to be a little unsettling, though still very much child-friendly and in the Christmas spirit.
The curtain comes down and during the set change the audience is treated to a funny parody of “Do You See What I See,” entitled, “Didn’t I Get This Last Year?” The details of the scene are worth the surprise, so I won’t spoil it.
The curtain comes back up, and we’re back in the main hall, which has been transformed to be more of a church, the windows replaced with a gigantic and elegant cross and stained glass windows. For all the goofiness that came before it, the final segment of the second act is a heartfelt and reverent string of pious songs including “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and “Ave Maria.” The show closes with “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
My question is, is the show anything more than what I’ve described? Is it just a pleasant two hours of entertainment, or is there more depth to it?
I’ll get to my answer after sharing Amanda’s take on the show
Amanda’s Perspective on the Show
In her own words…
The first few things I notice – the theater is super crowded, which isn’t a surprise. This is an immensely popular show – and my fellow audience members are mostly Caucasian and either seniors or parents with young children. Daniel and I, as a late 20s/early 30s couple with no children, were in the minority. The theater was beautifully decorated and I was looking forward to seeing the set pieces. We were encouraged to stop at the concession stand, where people stood with boxes of popcorn and soft drinks, and further encouraged to take our snacks WITH us into the theater. I found this both awesome yet off-putting at the same time. Was I at a movie theater or a theater-theater? Munching on popcorn while watching a show? OK!
We had lovely seats that offered a great view. The curtain rises to reveal a large winding staircase with beautifully decorated trees and set pieces reminiscent of a old hearth and home. The first act is a long list of Christmas standards, both secular and Christian, and has a loose theme that tied them all together. Kinda sorta. It boils down to a fancy gathering of well-trained singers who power through the Christmas songs and carols most guaranteed to make the audience tap their toes and sing along. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. I thought it was nice. Like “finding five dollars in your winter jacket pocket” nice. Like, “Oh, that puppy is so gosh darn adorable” nice. You know, “nice.”
In the first act, there isn’t really anything remarkable that left a lasting impression for me. The dancers are graceful and support their singing cast well. The singers are all very talented, each offering their own distinctive voice style. There are a few songs that feature some fantastic harmonies, reminiscent of the Andrew Sisters circa World War 2. I’m a big fan of this style, so I really enjoyed that.
I almost wish they had just stuck with a retro theme through the entire first act, but alas, they incorporate wistful imagery instead a wife writing to her husband currently deployed (“Merry Christmas Darling”), the husband returning home from war (“O Christmas Tree” – this one was really weird for me. Why is he singing about a tree rather than how happy he is to see his family? Should I be concerned??). The end of Act I brings out the first few Christian carols as well – “Joy to the World” (which I found atrocious, only because it was a jazzed-up contemporary arrangement and I’m a staunch believer in leaving the standard hymns sacred as they are), a song where each letter in “Christmas” stands for something related to Jesus Christ (the old woman next to me really ate this one up), and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”
Intermission. I found myself turning to Daniel with a flat smile. So far, the show had been more or less what I had been anticipating (“nice”). In looking at what was in store for Act Two I was a little worried about the more investing carols (“Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” “Ave Maria,” “O Holy Night” – anyone who has ever tried to sing these songs solo knows these are not easy-peasy). After Act One’s “Joy to the World,” I was worried I was going to be leaving gouge marks in Daniel’s arm.
I was surprised when Act Two opened up into something completely, totally different. Someone somewhere along the way had sucked one too many acid-soaked candy canes because we are now in Candy Land where the children have woken up to find elves making candy for Christmas. Now, this is more like what I remembered of theater – over-the-top costumes, silly acting – and I actually found myself relieved. I was into it. It was like a palate cleanser. The cast sang several candy-related songs. Over the top, yet cute. Still “nice.” The next piece features a hilarious song playing on “Do You Hear What I Hear.” A woman dressed as a young girl sings about getting the same stuff again this year she got last year. Pretty funny. It allows for a serious set change in the background (Candy Land is no more!).
When the curtain rises we’re treated to some old-school caroling. Now we’re talking! Acapella singing rules. I couldn’t really complain about this too much. The actors even come out into the audience, and while I didn’t want anyone to look me in the eye (never look them in the eye!), the kids sitting ahead of us thought it was the coolest thing ever.
Then comes the moment of truth. The heavy-hitting hymns. And wouldn’t you know that they really blow it out of the water. I was so relieved. “Jesu” is sung as a duet by two of the female sopranos. Ave Maria is arranged for the men to sing and is very well done. “O Come, All Ye Faithful” is a rollicking band-only song that allows for some showboating by the band members. All in all I enjoyed the second act more than the first.
I liked that the orchestra/band is on stage and is integrated into the set. The violinist, Michael Lambertson, is truly fun to watch. All the musicians are great. The singers are all very talented and well matched for their songs. They are pleasant to hear and hit all the notes. The costumes are mostly suits and sparkly gowns, pretty but not the centerpiece, at least not until the second half of the second act when the Serious Ball Gowns make an appearance.
It was… well, you probably know what I’m about to say. Nice. Would I see it again? Honestly, probably not. If I want to hear Christmas songs performed I think I’d rather see a more intimate show, something a little more unique perhaps guaranteed not to be cookie-cutter. That said, I can understand why AMT’s Christmas Show is so popular and a standard in its own right.
Does It Have Depth?
Daniel here again. We’re writing this post the day after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. With that horror on our minds, it is hard not to ask deeper questions of the art around us. And so I have to ask, what is there to the American Music Theatre’s Christmas show? Is it just a two-hour entertainment with some music we love in a fantasy world? Is it escapist, even, the vision of the world it presents a lie that we can indulge briefly as a reprieve from the reality of our world?
I don’t think it is escapist. Most of the audience, myself included, believes, after all, that we’re celebrating something real and something immensely important. There is enough in the production and in the songs themselves to reward audience members for keeping their brains powered up.
At the same time, I agree with Amanda that the show didn’t change me. Elizabeth Drew famously said, “The test of literature is, I suppose, whether we ourselves live more intensely for the reading of it.” The same may be true for all art. Tolkien, the master of fantasy, believed that, in the end, good fantasy puts us squarely back in reality, with more perspective and insight.
American Music Theatre‘s 2012 Christmas Show doesn’t live up to those high standards for art, by choice, and that’s fine. It’s a good show. It didn’t change Amanda or me, and it probably won’t change most people. I’m sure, however, that it inspires a love of theater in many children and that it brings a much-needed dose of happiness and cheer to others in the midst of the stress and bleakness of winter and the holiday season.
How We Came to See the Show
I’ll end at the beginning, to explain why Amanda and I went to see a show that we likely would not have otherwise gone to.
Here’s the story in a nutshell: I made an offhand joke at AMT’s expense on Twitter. Mike Rathfon, the digital marketing manager for the theater, saw it and called me down. I offered to see the show and review it here on my blog in exchange for a complementary tickets, and he obliged.
The full-length story is a matter of public record from the Twitter stream:
What Are Your Thoughts?
If you’ve seen the show or even participated in it, I would love to hear your perspective and observations.
I would also like to give a special thanks to Mike Rathfon and to American Music Theatre for the tickets and for being so gracious about the whole incident.