Sunday, December 7, 2014

ISO's 'Yuletide Celebration' takes in some well-designed moments for Time for Three

A number of years have elapsed since I last saw "Yuletide Celebration," though its origin coincided with mine as the Indianapolis Star's arts reporter.

Angela Brown knows how to blend glamour and down-to-earth warmth.
Unlike me, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's holiday variety show seems to have gotten more energetic, stylish and refined with age, judging from Saturday night's performance of the 29th annual production in Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Angela Brown, the effervescent operatic soprano who calls Indianapolis home, is reunited as host with Broadway baritone Ben Crawford. The couple revives its 2012 partnership. They engagingly manage the patter (with Brown owing more than a little to the style of the sainted Pearl Bailey), and a few apt remarks are contributed from the podium by pops maestro Jack Everly. Of course, Brown and Crawford get plenty of exposure in vocal solos and duets as well. A special feature of the 2014 show is the magnetism and panache of Time for Three, the Philadelphia-born string trio now in its sixth season as the ISO's ensemble in residence.

The Brown-Crawford "classical" vocal showcase — a medley of "Gesu Bambino," "Panis Angelicus," and "Cantique de Noel" (O Holy Night) — was the least satisfying of the show's medleys and mash-ups, despite Everly's attractive orchestration.  The two singers came off better in solos, such as Brown's in "Rise Up, Shepherd" and Crawford's "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm."

The ISO's pops side is more at the forefront in "Yuletide Celebration"  than its classical chops. The adroit company of singers and dancers supports the stars in the matter of refinement. If memory serves, even the time-tested first-act finale — an abundance of Santa Claus figures tap-dancing to "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" — has changed into something more suave and intricate than ever.

There is certainly no surer hand to have at the helm of this kind of entertainment than Everly. He also  arranged a clever production around "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," with ISO  principal tuba player Anthony Kniffen coming down front to play the melody while Dr. Seuss' Grinch mugged menacingly from one of the stage set's lofty balconies. On the other side of intermission, Everly presides over the premiere performances of his arrangement of songs from the movie "Frozen," culminating in a powerful men's chorus. The suite was neatly tied together, with a particularly mesmerizing episode in which gymnastic aerialist Kristen Noonan also sang, followed by Time for Three's accompanying her limber display in and around an airborne hoop.

You never know what Tf3 will do next.
Time for Three has once again extended its range with this show. The lads had some light-hearted dialogue, they sang a little bit like any good boy band, and violinist Nick Kendall even had a few seconds of tap-dancing, though if you blinked you missed it.

Their forte of effusive, close-order string-ensemble drill was amply on display, naturally. It's given a "bluegrazzy" feeling by their longtime colleague Steve Hackman in his arrangements of "Here We Come A-Wassailing" and in a clever, extended medley of "Let It Snow" interspersed with excerpts from Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker," supported by violinist Zach De Pue's ISO colleagues. Bassist Ranaan Meyer also appears without his trio colleagues in the midst of an effervescent medley of popular seasonal hits titled "Yuletide Jukebox."

Costume designer Clare Henkel's resourcefulness and intuitive pizazz added considerably to the production's visual richness. Especially notable were her multiple designs for Brown and the wealth of glitz poured into a number from "Elf: The Musical" led by Crawford at his most charming. The stage set matched the manner in which the performers were decked out, and Jennifer Ladner's choreography made the most of the large cast's aptitude for snappy, coordinated movement.