Into the Christmas Spirit

Writer Joseph J. Airdo

Photo Courtesy of Alexander Iziliaev

As lyricist Al Stillman originally wrote in 1954, there is no place like home for the holidays.

That is especially true in Arizona, as we are extremely fortunate to have plenty of performing arts organizations and venues that help us get into the Christmas spirit. For starters, several nationally and internationally renowned shows will make brief stops in the Valley to deliver all of the joys of the holidays directly to our doorstep.

Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts

Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts has back-to-back weekends of holiday-themed shows throughout December. The venue’s programming director, Abbey Messmer, says that when she was planning this year’s holiday performances, she wanted family to be one of the higher priorities.

Its programming kicks into high gear at 8 p.m. Dec. 14 when Mariachi Sol de México returns to the venue with its holiday concert “A Merri-Achi Christmas.”

“‘A Merri-Achi Christmas’ has been part of our holiday programming for many years, so they have come to feel like part of our family here in Scottsdale,” Messmer says. “[Maestro Jose] Hernandez brings a fresh program each time they visit but it is also rich with tradition—which is something most people yearn for during the holidays.”

Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts will then host several performances of “Assisted Living: The Musical—The Home for the Holidays” Dec. 17–22.

“‘Assisted Living: The Musical—The Home For The Holidays’ is a 75-minute vaudeville-esque revue that focuses on the crazy antics that happen at an active, full-service retirement community during the holiday season,” Messmer explains. “The many characters sing and dance, revel and kvetch, celebrate and bloviate their way through Christmas and Hanukkah.”

Eleven-member a cappella group Voctave will perform its “Spirit of the Season” concert at 7 p.m. Dec. 21 at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.

“I think a cappella is a perfect art form for expressing the joy and whimsy of the holidays,” Messmer says. “It will be Voctave’s first time performing in Scottsdale, and I think they will enjoy the unique experience that is winter in the Sonoran Desert.”

Joyful Sounds

Other nationally renowned groups who will stop in the Valley to help us celebrate the holidays include vocal ensemble New York Voices at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 5, and sibling piano-quartet The 5 Browns at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 14. Both holiday concerts, which are part of Arizona Musicfest, will be held at Highlands Church in Scottsdale.

We need not necessarily outsource our holiday entertainment though, as Arizona is home to some tremendously talented performing arts organizations that prove that Christmas spirit is one of the Valley’s greatest natural resources.

Other merry music performances from the Valley’s own organizations include Phoenix Chorale’s “A Chorale Christmas” Dec. 13–17 at various venues throughout the Valley; Salt River Brass’s “Holiday Pops” at 3 p.m. Dec. 15 at Mesa Arts Center’s Ikeda Theater; and Scottsdale Philharmonic’s holiday concert at 4 p.m. Dec. 15 at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.

Even though it may not always look like Christmas in our desert communities, we have many musical performances to ensure that it will certainly sound like it throughout the season.

ProMusica Arizona

ProMusica Arizona will present its “Joy to All the World” concert at 7 p.m. Dec. 14 at Cross of Christ Lutheran Church in Anthem, and at 3:30 p.m. Dec. 15 at American Lutheran Church in Sun City.

ProMusica Arizona’s artistic director and principal conductor Patti Graetz says that the group will perform the Arizona premiere of Valley resident Craig Bohmler’s “Joy to All the World”—a medley of lesser-known, but still familiar Christmas carols from around the world.

The group’s chorus will also sing pieces of Antonio Vivaldi’s “Gloria,” and its orchestra will perform a pair of rarely heard pieces—“Winter Night (Sleigh Ride)” by Frederick Delius and “Polonaise” from Rimsky-Korsakoff’s “Christmas Eve Suite.”

“On the lighter side, we will present the classic ‘’Twas the Night Before Christmas’ for choir and orchestra, made famous by the Dale Warland Singers, and a delightful piece for orchestra, ‘Santa at the Symphony,’” Graetz says.

North Valley 

Symphony Orchestra

Meanwhile, North Valley Symphony Orchestra’s “Christmas Pops” concert, which will be performed at 7 p.m. Dec. 14 and 3 p.m. Dec. 15 at Shadow Mountain High School Performing Arts Center in Phoenix, will include pieces from holiday classics “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “Elf” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

Kevin Kozacek, who serves as North Valley Symphony Orchestra’s music director and conductor, notes that audience members will even be invited to play along on miniature bells to Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.”

“North Valley Symphony Orchestra is especially excited to present ‘’Twas the Night Before Christmas’ in collaboration with Brevity Theater,” Kozacek says. “The piece was composed by Randoll Bass and features the full poem, ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ by Clement Moore—which will be performed by a wonderful actor from the theater troupe.”

Orpheus Male Chorus 

of Phoenix

Orpheus Male Chorus of Phoenix will present its holiday concert Dec. 8–15 at various venues throughout the Valley, including Camelback Bible Church in Paradise Valley and Central United Methodist Church in Phoenix.

Orpheus Male Chorus of Phoenix’s artistic director, Brook Larson, says the concert will provide a wide variety of sacred and secular holiday music.

“We have audience members, sometimes in tears, saying our performance makes their Christmas or holiday season,” Larson adds. “[This year, they] will really enjoy the ‘Reindeer Hula’—which involves them getting to participate and have fun.”

Sonoran Desert Chorale

Sonoran Desert Chorale’s artistic director, Carric Smolnik, says that his group’s holiday concert “Good Tidings We Bring”—which will be performed 7:30 p.m. Dec. 7 at First United Methodist Church in Mesa, and 3 p.m. Dec. 8 at La Casa De Cristo Lutheran Church in Scottsdale—is designed to speak to childhood memories of traditional holiday music.

“The concert opens with excitement and beauty as the chorale sings two works accompanied by organ and brass ensemble,” Smolnik explains. “Following the intermission, the chorale will sing a selection of arrangements of traditional carols. 

“The chorale will share beauty, nostalgia and excitement as the audience is transported back to fond memories of holidays of yore.”

Festive Sights

If joyful sounds are not enough to help you get into the Christmas spirit, the Valley’s various stages will feature festive sights that will instantly transport you to far cooler climates. In the blink of an eye, the curtains recede to reveal winter wonderlands beyond even your wildest imagination.

Arizona Broadway Theater

Nate Bertone, who recently served as an assistant scenic designer on Lin Manuel Miranda’s “Freestyle Love Supreme” on Broadway, will bring Christmastown to life for Arizona Broadway Theater’s production of “Elf: The Musical” Nov. 22–Dec. 29 at its venue in Peoria.

Michael Whitney, the associate director and fight coordinator of “Elf’s” national tour, will take the reins as director and put his own touches on the story, which is based on the 2003 film starring Will Ferrell as Buddy the Elf.

“This is a show that you cannot resist smiling through,” says Adam Vargas, who portrays Buddy in Arizona Broadway Theater’s production. “One of the themes of the show is helping others find the Christmas spirit that they may have lost for one reason or another. The musical itself will do the same for audiences. It is going to dare you not to smile and have a good time.”

Black Theatre Troupe

Meanwhile, Black Theatre Troupe will once again transform Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center’s stage in Phoenix for “Black Nativity.” The production, set for Dec. 6–22, will look and feel slightly different than it has been in past years.

Black Theatre Troupe’s executive director David J. Hemphill says that one of the greatest things about “Black Nativity” is the flexibility that playwright Langston Hughes’s writing gives to the theater companies and casts that present the production. The first act is a structured retelling of the Christmas story, while the second act is structured loosely as a gospel rock concert.

“This season, our director, Walter Belcher, has envisioned a new design and format for this second act to recreate the feel of a rousing Sunday morning church service in song and dance with choreography by Alexander Patrick,” Hemphill says.

“This concept is supported by entirely new costumes by Carol Simmons, a new and intricate lighting design by Bret G. Reese, and the moving sermons of Reverend Jeremey Jones, which act as a narrative as well as augment and illustrate the words of Langston Hughes.”

Two Christmas Carols, a christmas story and a Wonderful Life

Fountain Hills Theater will further bring the various visuals of the season to the Valley with its production of “A Christmas Carol: The Musical” Dec. 6–22.

Fountain Hills Theater’s artistic director, Peter J. Hill, says the company will bring new technical elements—such as an even spookier Ghost of Christmas-Yet-To-Come—to this year’s production, which is already loaded with ghosts, fog, flying beds and other special effects.

“It is always great fun to accomplish these amazing technical elements on such a tiny stage, but at the heart of ‘A Christmas Carol’ is its universal story of redemption,” Hill says. “It is that tale that brings performers and audiences back year after year to share the story, the characters and the music of this timeless Dickens classic. And, heck, it is a great way to spend the holidays with friends.”

Scottsdale Musical Theater Company will present its own version of “A Christmas Carol: The Musical,” starring former “Days of Our Lives” cast member Charles Shaughnessy, Dec. 12–22 at Tempe Center for the Arts.

Meanwhile, Desert Stages Theater will perform its production of “A Christmas Story” Nov. 29–Dec. 22, and Don Bluth Front Row Theater will perform its production of “It’s a Wonderful Life” Nov. 29–Dec. 30 at their respective venues in Scottsdale.

Merry Spectacles

If all of those options are still not enough to get you into the Christmas spirit, the Valley’s dance companies will present performances that are tailor-made for those seeking merry spectacles of New York City proportions—and you do not need to hail a cab in the middle of a snow-covered Times Square in order to see them.

Christian Dance Company

Christian Dance Company’s aptly titled “The Spirit of Christmas,” scheduled for a series of six performances Dec. 14–22 at Chandler Center for the Arts, features more than 100 dancers, singers, musicians, a horse and carriage, special guest performers and a champion hoop dancer.

Bethany Cormack, office manager at Tempe Dance/Talent Factory, notes that Christian Dance Company is a non-profit organization, and that a percentage of the proceeds from this year’s shows will benefit the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

“The Spirit of Christmas is a wonderful show for the whole family,” Cormack says. “Our show provides a variety of styles of dance, uses music from around the world, and includes authentic Rockette dances taught by one of our teachers, who was a New York City Rockette.”

Center Dance Ensemble

Meanwhile, those who are still experiencing the residual side effects of the scorching temperatures of Arizona’s summer may finally feel some relief by taking in a showing of Center Dance Ensemble’s “The Snow Queen.”

Center Dance Ensemble’s managing director Carol Crockett notes that the production—set for Dec. 7–22 at Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix—is a particularly resonant one for the company, whose founder and artistic director of 31 years, Frances Smith Cohen, passed away unexpectedly this past spring.

Several generations of children have performed in Center Dance Ensemble’s productions of “The Snow Queen” over the years, with each production featuring not only the company’s dancers, but almost 70 students from other ballet studios across Arizona.

“This year will be the final production, so it is a very special occasion for those who have had the opportunity to perform—some of whom will be traveling long distances from college to see the performance this last time,” Crocket adds.

numerous Nutcrackers

Of course, Christmas would be incomplete without experiencing at least one production of “The Nutcracker.” Ballet Arizona is just one of several performing arts organizations in the Valley whose stage will be populated by sugar plum fairies this season.

Ballet Arizona’s production will run for a total of 14 performances Dec. 13–24, all of which will be accompanied with live music by The Phoenix Symphony at Phoenix Symphony Hall. Ethan Price, one of the company’s dancers, says that performing in “The Nutcracker” is truly a one-of-a-kind feeling.

“The costumes and sets are so rich and full of detail,” Price explains. “The music, composed by Tchaikovsky, really captures and embodies the magic of the holiday season.”

Phoenix Ballet and Ballet Etudes are among the Valley’s other dance companies that will present productions of “The Nutcracker.” Phoenix Ballet’s production will run Dec. 13–23 at Orpheum Theater in Phoenix while Ballet Etudes’s production will run Nov. 29–Dec. 8 at Chandler Center for the Arts and Dec. 14–22 at Mesa Arts Center.

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