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SMC wows with Fruitcake, holiday concerts hit Seattle
by Milton W. Hamlin - SGN A&E Writer

The magical 2008 holiday theatrical season for Emerald City entertainment fans continues this week. Loyal readers of Bits&Bytes will remember that four new Christmas shows were reviewed last week - and all of them received glowing reviews. This week, B&B looks at more seasonal offerings and, again, it's four for four in the winner department (don't miss Mr. Bits&Bytes' review of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers elsewhere in the SGN). Read on:

The Seattle Men's Chorus delighted the opening-night crowd last Sunday at Benaroya Hall with the 2008 holiday concert, Fruitcake. The nearly three-hour concert had the proverbial "something for everyone" which seemed to delight 99 percent of the happy crowd. The Chorus, celebrating 10 consecutive years at Benaroya, opened the show with an unusually quiet musical moment. Nine singers - presumably Captain Smartypants members - gathered stage center, backed by the combo of musicians for a charming, quieting "Christmas Once More." Then a rousing, spirited "Deck The Halls" filled the auditorium - and the stage - with hundreds of SMC singers.

"Silver Bells" followed, with Dennis Coleman, artistic director and the concert's conductor, stepping aside to allow a debonair doctor who purchased the right to conduct one number at SMC's fundraising auction. The chorus, always in fine shape, responded with full emotion to the guest conductor's leadership.

"We Three Kings" and "Star of Wonder" proved to be a great medley and spotlighted the serious side of the chorus. A hushed "Ave Maria" by Tomas Luis de Victoria followed, another quiet triumph. "Variations on Jingle Bells" brought the belles of Sensible Shoes, a small ensemble from the Seattle Women's Chorus, center stage for a solidly entertaining outing.

Jennifer Holliday, the SMC's guest star for the two opening concerts, took the stage, delighted the crowd, amazed the audience with her tales of losing 200 pounds since her Tony Award-winning performance in Dreamgirls in 1981. Her "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" followed the holiday programming. Her "I'm Changing" gave the near-capacity crowd a feeling of her Dreamgirls performance. The Night Before Christmas...Revisited, a complex and sprawling new major musical event, ended Act One.

Act Two started with comedy. "We Nine Kings," a parody of the familiar carol, opened with the three ages of Elvis - young Jailhouse Rock Elvis, Elvis of the gold-suited RCA LP cover era, and the bloated Elvis of Las Vegas ignominy. Then came the real fun: more kings. Billie Jean King, King Kong, an Egyptian pharaoh, Henry VIII, Disney's The Lion King. This was Captain Smartypants at its best.

The members of the SMC entered in casual attire for Act Two, sweaters the norm. "I Cannot Count the Stars," "Lux Armque," "New Words From the Beginning" tested the audience's tolerance for new material. The always-popular audience sing-along followed - always a highlight. Another new, challenging major musical work followed - "The Promise: A Christmas Miracle" used a World War II storyline of a GI who promises his family that, yes, indeed, "I'll Be Home For Chirstmas." Hard to evaluate on a single viewing, the new piece has potential - especially on a shorter evening.

Jennifer Holliday returned in another knockout diva gown that cheered the crowd. She belted out "And I'm Telling You, I'm Not Going" - she quipped that it's "probably my signature song." It's hard to imagine a stranger choice of song for the feel-good ending of the Fruitcake concert, but the crowd clearly paid to attention to the message of the music. This is a Tony Award-winning diva singing in Seattle. The obligatory standing ovation was well earned.

Fun returned with the closing Stomp The Halls, a clever parody of the Stomp phenomenon and the classic "Deck The Halls." A lovely encore ended the long, long evening. SMC repeats the show, without Holliday, December 13 in Tacoma and December 14, 15, 21 and 22 in Seattle, offering matinees and evening performances at Benaroya. Ticket information at (206) 388-1400. High recommendation.

It's a big week and a big season for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Holiday Pops with Marvin Hamlisch opened the month for five delightful performances last weekend. Near capacity audiences delighted at the corny jokes, the big-voiced soloists, the holiday favorites. The Seattle Choral Company, directed by Fred Coleman, added luster to the concerts that (thank heaven) were brisk and direct, clocking in at just less than two hours.

The perennial favorite, Holiday Sing-Along with the Seattle Symphony Chorale, on Tuesday night was another rip-roaring success. This weekend, Winter Dreams, a Masterwork mixed repertory program, continues through Sunday's 2 p.m. matinee with works by Handel, Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky. Next Tuesday, A Celtic Christmas with Natalie MacMaster adds diversity to the holiday calendar.

Handel's beloved Messiah returns to SSO for a December 18-21 five-performance run. The SSChorale and the SSOrchestra and special soloists make this the version of Messiah that is the don't-miss musical event of the month. December 23 finds A Festival of Lessons & Carols takes the stage at Benaroya Hall. Spotlighting members of the Northwest Boychoir, Vocalpoint Seattle and members of the Northwest Sinfonia, the evening should be a highlight of the season.

New Year's Eve finds SSO's New Year's Eve Concert, Countdown & Celebration filling Benaroya Hall with cheering musical fans who pack the place for the annual outing with Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 - his "Choral" Symphony with the world-famous "Ode to Joy" ending the 90-minute work. Music from John Phillip Sousa, Johann Strauss, Sr. and Alberto Ginastera complete the evening, which, of course, ends just before midnight. Beethoven's 9th Symphony encores January 2, 3 and 4 in another Holiday Special/Popular Classic program, teaming the monumental work with the composer's Symphony No. 1.

Complete information on all SSO events is available at (206) 215-4747. A special grant this year allows the Symphony to start many concert pricing at just $10 - ask and ye shall receive.

SSO's new CD, Holiday Classics, features the Orchestra, conducted by Gerard Schwarz. This scribe's favorite cut of the 16 selections is Schwarz's own arrangement of "We Three Kings Of Orient Are" and "We Wish You A Merry Christmas." At the holiday pops concert last weekend, the CD was selling briskly - it does make the perfect holiday gift (and a perfect price) for the musical lover in your life. High recommendation.

There's only one word for the warm and wonderful staging of Kaufman & Hart's Pulitzer Prize-winning You Can't Take It With You that opened last week at the Seattle Repertory Theatre: Perfection. Director Warner Shook, a former artistic director of Intiman Theatre, was born to direct feel-good shows like You Can't Take It With You. At Intiman, at the Rep, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, at regional theaters all across the west, Shook proves time and again that he has a special affinity for plays of the 1920s, '30s and '40s. He's equally adept at modern dramas - his production of the Gay-themed Angels in America at Intiman remains a highlight of Seattle theatrical history.

You Can't Take It With You is truly one of the most beloved plays in American literature. Not a day goes by that a community theater, a high school group, or a professional stage doesn't visit the wacky Sycamore family and delight its audiences with the result. Everyone in this production is totally on-target. Michael Winters is the solid rock as Grandfather Vanderhof who stopped going to work years ago and lives comfortably, in 1936 near Columbia University in New York City, doing little. "What's the use of more money?" he asks. "After all, you can't take it with you." Winters wisely underplays his key role, letting the oddball charms of the wildly idiosyncratic characters dominate the play. Anne Allgood is another wonder as Penny, his married daughter who decided to write plays because a typewriter was delivered by mistake eight years ago.

Annette Toutonghi is another delight as Penny's married daughter - she spends her days practicing ballet, as she has for eight years, and one day soon might be able to do a basic step. And so it goes. There's the drunken actress, a memorable Suzy Hunt, that Penny meets on an outing. There's Mr. DePinna, the milkman who delivered milk eight years ago and just stayed.

The two "normal" characters are Alice, radiantly brought to life by Elise Karoline Hunt, and her rich boss, Tony, delightfully believable in Ben Hollandsworth's characterization. Both are making their Intiman debuts. Most of the rest of the cast is Seattle based, and the Intiman audience on opening night clearly loved seeing favorite actors cast in new - and often different - roles. You Can't Take It With You runs through January 3 and it is a guaranteed delight. Highest recommendation. Ticket information at (206) 443-2222 or toll-free at (877) 900-9285 for out-of-area theater fans.

Boom, the quirky comedy about the end of the world, has taken Seattle theater fans by storm, and high ticket demand has led the Rep to unexpectedly extend the run until just before Christmas, adding one extra week to the show's schedule. For GLBT theater fans, the performance of Nick Garrison, the openly Gay actor fondly remembered for his work in the title role in Hedwig and the Angry Inch and his flamboyant work in Dirty Little Showtunes. In Boom, he plays it "straight" - but as a Gay man facing the end of the world unless his computer date turns out to create a new child for the survival of the race.

Tickets at the same numbers listed above. High recommendation.

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