You can search the FM band on your car radio for Christmas music. You can watch Christmas specials on television while making your lists. You can join the mobs of shoppers at the mall in search of the perfect but elusive gift.
But nothing will ignite the spirit of Christmas faster and better than the live singing and dancing at “A Flat Rock Playhouse Christmas,” the current stage production that taps into the wealth of artistic performance talent in the local community, as well as the professional stars visiting our hamlet for the holidays.
This annual event of song and dance immediately brought the audience to its feet for a standing ovation at the end of a Christmas-themed variety show that included classical music, bluegrass music, tap dancing, ballet, Rockette-style high kicks and even a little child singing solo “Mele Kalikimaka,” which is Hawaiian for “Merry Christmas.”
The show was created, directed and choreographed by the multi-talented Matthew Glover. The 13-member ensemble included a mix of newcomers and veteran Vagabonds: Katie Hope-Barton, Travis Battle, Emily Fallon, Maddie Franke, Claire Griffin, Ryan Guerra, Ben Hope, Katelyn Ledbetter, Jose Luaces, Gabriel Navarro, Scott Treadway, Jason Watson and Kathleen Watson. There’s a youth ensemble, dancers from Pat’s School of Dance and Dance Etc., and a large chorus of volunteer singers from the community. Music Director Alex Sheilds conducted from the back-stage and elevated piano and is given extra kudos for his versatility, talent and shear endurance.
The two-act show had nearly 30 individual performances, some of which were majestic and spirit-lifting, like “O Holy Night” led by Fallon, who was supported by the entire company. Others songs were simple and meaningful, like “Belleau Wood,” a contemporary country Christmas song written by Garth Brooks. “Belleau Wood” is a ballad about a miraculous Christmas ceasefire on the German battlefield of World War I, and Hope’s rendition brought tears to the eyes of many patrons in the audience.
The show started off with an Opening Medley and the ensemble frolicing in winter street clothes, singing “Snow,” “Let It Snow,” Frosty the Snowman,” “Silver Bells” and “Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” One of the standout performances of the first act was the “Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas” and “Pine Cones and Holly Berries” mash-up duette by Franke and Battle. It was a tricky mash-up, in which the singers were masterful with the tongue-twisting and overlapping lyrics.
The instrumental salute to “The Nutcracker” was fitting for the occasion and mercifully short. Halfway through the first act, the show took on a decidedly bluegrass flavor, first showing up with Hope-Baron (stand-up bass), Hope (guitar) and Guerra (fiddle) performing “Put A Little Holiday In Your Heart.”
Act II got off to a rousing start with the full company singing “Happy Holiday,” and the show’s energy level skyrocketed when the tap dancers took to the stage. Most of the performers were both young and young at heart. However, giving the show that magical Flat Rock touch was Treadway, sporting gray hair and a beard to match. Several times, he stood in the spotlight to directly address the audience on behalf of the company, giving historical notes, backstories, insights and his own recounting of this past year set to song: “That’s the Holidays to Me,” which I do believe must be an original and personal composition.
As a rule, Christmas musical extravaganzas are notorious for roasting the same ol’ chestnuts over and over, year after year. No so with Flat Rock Playhouse. The trick is to give the audience what it thinks it wants — the tried and true and at the same time put new life into the old and even include a few songs that are not classics. How nice it was hear Griffin sing “Silent Night” in German: We all know the English translation, but the melody is the same. I had never heard “Breath of Heaven,” rewritten by Amy Grant from a woman’s perspective, namely Mary. Thank you, Watson, Ledbetter, Navarro, and dancers for introducing new Christmas music to an old-school guy.
As someone who is often casted as a Grinch, I found “A Flat Rock Playhouse Christmas!” the perfect balance between the old and the new, conceived and presented by the most talented performing artists in the Carolinas. As the year and the venue’s season come to an end, Flat Rock Playhouse has done again what it has done for 67 years: stage the best of life. It is a gift well received. Cheers!