Review by Kellie Houx
Musical Theater Heritage’s A Spectacular Christmas is a smorgasbord of sassy and sublime singers and storytellers, sentimental holiday favorites, straightforward and uncomplicated sets, which when all are rolled together produces a truly satisfying theater experience.
Musical Theater Heritage is a strong force in the theatrical and musical world here in Kansas City. I appreciate their approach to presenting musical theater. There are almost no set and limited costumes and props. The singers, for the most part, sing to the audience and the fourth wall gets very flimsy. Just for a quick refresher, the fourth wall is the imaginary boundary at the front of the stage in traditional theater through which the audience sees the action and the actors. It is that demarcation that separates the audience from the play. Another joy is how close the audience gets to be from the cast. There’s an intimacy that can be so appealing.
For the Christmas show this year, singers Lauren Braton, Bryan LaFave, Justin McCoy and Stefanie Wienecke led the program. Braton is a fan favorite. Vocally she has a range that moves from operatic to seemingly being the direct descendant of the voice of Patty Andrews of the Andrews Sisters. By the way, I truly believe she is as sweet and kind as she is lovely and talented.
McCoy is one of my favorites of recent months. I met him at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre’s rehearsal of Ragtime. I knew he was going to be a success. Here’s a handsome man who can play piano, organ and sing. He’s got this deep voice that fills the space and a charm that seals any little leaks. If I can make my predictions, McCoy will continue to develop his talents and be another strong force in town.
Wienecke and I have not met in person, but I am huge fan of her composing skills. She wrote some original music for the She & Her production of A Feminine Ending. She sent in a recording of the first minute of a piece and I was enamored. Hearing her sing just proved that Kansas City is blessed with people who can sing, act and play an instrument. Both she and McCoy got a chance to sit at the piano usually reserved for the wonderful Jeremy Watson, assistant music director. He does a mean version of The Nutcracker as a solo piano piece. It’s downright amazing.
LaFave is a new voice for me. However, I sure hope to hear more. He’s got that sort of cool, higher registered voice that is enchanting.By the way, LaFave was struck by a car on Dec. 10. He suffered serious leg and head injuries. He required surgery and by all accounts he is going to be just fine. However, in the true spirit of the theater, “the show must go on.” An understudy has stepped in. However, to help LaFave, donations are being accepted to help cover his expenses.
The other charmers came in the form of storytellers Marilyn Lynch and Richard Alan Nichols. I really enjoyed Lynch; she’s still that sort of feisty broad who tells just the right sort of naughty tales. (Of course there are no saucy tales here, but I am sure she could tell them.) Nichols, who is 79, told a lovely version of MTH founder George Harter’s 19 Cents Worth of Christmas. The other wonderful story came from Brendan Hulla who recited the story of The Bicycle of Julio Gonzalez. Maggie Marx, Willa Hope Walberg and Jordan Haas round out the youthful choir participants.
So sure, it’s a Christmas show and the Christmas songs are familiar such as What Child is This, Deck the Halls, White Christmas and Carol of the Bells, but as my father noted, the arrangements are different and a little bit unorthodox. As an example, Baby, It’s Cold Outside updates the gender roles. Of course, my favorite piece ends the show, We Are Not Alone, written by Pepper Choplin. This a cappella piece speaks to the heart and soul. It’s atypical for a Christmas show, but so moving. I dare anyone not to be singing this when they leave the show.
Subsequently go see the show. It’s a wonderful two-hour excursion from the creative mind of Artistic Director Sarah Crawford, Executive Producer Chad Gerlt and Executive Director George Harter. Performances are Thursday through Sunday, Dec. 12-15 and 19-22. The show times are 7 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays.