Making Spirits Bright: A Merriment of Seasonal Spectacles

Writer Joseph J. Airdo
The Nutcracker (Courtesy of Kellan Meko – Ballet Etudes)

There really is nothing like an Arizona Christmas.

Granted, to experience a white Christmas, you’ll need to drive north to Flagstaff. But the Valley more than makes up for its lack of snowfall with the exceptionally festive live performing arts programs presented in Phoenix and its surrounding communities this time of the year.

From national acts making guest appearances in our state to local groups pulling out all of the stops to make our December days merry and bright, Santa Claus himself couldn’t throw a lump of coal without hitting at least one stage that is lit up like a Christmas tree and populated with some of the most talented individuals this side of the North Pole.

For starters, Mannheim Steamroller—a musical group whose signature sound has become synonymous with Christmas—is set for a 7:30 p.m. Dec. 27 performance at ASU Gammage in Tempe. Meanwhile, Drumline Live will bring its holiday show to Chandler Center for the Arts at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 21. They are just two examples of a long list of holiday headliners that are certain to be the Valley’s biggest Yuletide draws.

Of course, our state’s stages also do a spectacular job of booking acts that explore holiday traditions through a culturally diverse lens. Maestro José Hernández’s platinum-selling Sol de México—the first mariachi ensemble to be nominated for a Grammy Award—will perform its popular Merry-Achi Christmas show 7 p.m. Dec. 15 at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.

Moreover, two different Irish Christmas performances will take place—one featuring Riverdance principal dancer Caterina Coyne at 7 p.m. Dec. 5 at Orpheum Theatre in Phoenix, and another produced by Oisín Mac Diarmada of the award-winning Irish group Téada Dec. 16 and 17 at Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all of the holiday happenings in the Valley. The richness of performing arts organizations in our communities create a Christmasy atmosphere that is guaranteed to deck your halls all December long.

Candy Canes And Silver Lanes Aglow

The Broadway plays and musicals sampled during Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade last month likely whet your whistle for live theater. Fortunately, the Valley’s various theater troupes are presenting a wide array of holiday shows at venues far closer than New York City.

One such show—which boasts a score by Broadway giants Alan Menken and Lynn Ahrens—is Scottsdale Musical Theater Company’s presentation of “A Christmas Carol.” “The Nanny” and “Days of Our Lives” actor Charles Shaughnessy portrays Ebenezer Scrooge in the musical stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’ timeless holiday classic Dec. 6–23 at Tempe Center for the Arts.

“The holidays can be a stressful time for many reasons,” said David Hock, executive producer of Scottsdale Musical Theater Company. “Getting to work on such a joyous holiday musical is a nice way to escape the madness of shopping malls, airports and traffic. You can’t help but get wrapped up in the spirit of the show.”

At the other end of the spectrum of holiday classics is “A Christmas Story,” which Desert Stages Theatre in Scottsdale is presenting through Dec. 23. The play’s script was taken almost directly from the 1983 film of the same title. Desert Stages Theatre marketing and social media coordinator Virginia Olivieri especially enjoys this particular Yuletide tale because of its meaningful message.

“‘A Christmas Story’ emphasizes for me the importance of my family, my children and the special moments—whether good, bad or crazy—we get to spend together,” Olivieri said. “Holiday shows remind us of where we come from and that no matter what there’s no place like home.”

Meanwhile, Black Theatre Troupe is presenting its annual production of “Black Nativity” through Dec. 16 at Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center in Phoenix. Black Theatre Troupe executive director David Hemphill said the performance is a significant part of the holidays for African Americans in the same way that “A Christmas Carol” and “The Nutcracker” are traditions for other audiences.

“It is a joyous celebration of music and dance that touches a special chord within everyone this time of the year,” explained Hemphill, noting that he has worked on “Black Nativity” every season for the past 40 years.

Other holiday shows include “12 Days of Christmas” through Dec. 23 at Fountain Hills Theater, “Miracle on 34th Street” through Dec. 29 at Arizona Broadway Theatre in Peoria, “It’s a Wonderful Life” through Dec. 29 at Don Bluth Front Row Theatre in Scottsdale and “Elf: The Musical” through Dec. 30 at Phoenix Theatre.

It’s the Right Time to Rock the Night Away

The Valley’s various instrumental bands are also providing audiences with plenty of opportunities to partake in the sounds of the season. The Scottsdale Philharmonic will present its holiday program 4 p.m. Dec. 9 at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. It will include composer Leroy Anderson’s “A Christmas Festival,” an arrangement of festive favorites such as “Silent Night,” “Carol of the Bells,”“March of the Toys” and “Joy to the World.”

“The holiday program is all about music that creates a feel-good moment, a special childhood memory with family or the excitement of what’s to come during the season,” said Joy Partridge, the Scottsdale Philharmonic’s president and violist. “Sharing the spirit of the season through music creates a fond memory for all of us at the Scottsdale Philharmonic.”

Meanwhile, North Valley Symphony Orchestra will present its holiday program—Winter Wonderland—7 p.m. Dec. 15 at North Canyon High School in Phoenix. Liberty Elementary School’s chorus will join the musicians during the program for a performance of composer Sergey Prokofiev’s “Winter Bonfire.”

“Whenever we involve other organizations in our concerts, it helps us build community—an important aspect of the art,” said Kevin Kozacek, music director for North Valley Symphony Orchestra. “[Working] on holiday music for a concert helps me enjoy the spirit of the season. This concert is all about the cold, wintry aspect of the holidays—which, living in Phoenix, sometimes we miss.”

The Salt River Brass will also do its part to get the Valley in the Christmas spirit with its Holiday Pops concert 3 p.m. Dec. 9 at Mesa Arts Center. The performance will showcase a mix of traditional and jazz arrangements of festive favorites such as “The Nutcracker Suite,” “White Christmas” and even a Motown-style version of “Jingle Bells.”

“The Salt River Brass’ annual holiday concert always gets me in the cheerful spirit,” said Ross Kerley, the band’s secretary and tuba player. “I feel that it’s not really the holiday season until I perform with Salt River Brass. Everyone in the Salt River Brass loves our fantastically enthusiastic audience that comes from near and far, and this concert feels like we’re giving back to them.”

The Phoenix Symphony has its fair share of holiday programs as well, including a Nov. 30–Dec. 2 Holiday Pops concert and a Dec. 7–9 Cirque Holiday Spectacular collaboration with Troupe Vertigo that pairs classic Christmas music with circus-type acts on the stage—and 40 feet above it. The Phoenix Symphony will also bring performances of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” to five different venues across the Valley Dec. 12–16.

Hark Now, Hear the Angels Sing

The Valley’s choral organizations also have Christmas covered. ProMusica Arizona will present its annual holiday show—a collaboration of both its chorale and its orchestra—Dec. 7–9 at American Lutheran Church and Cross of Christ Lutheran Church in Anthem. Jan Sandoz, a member of the chorale and a board chair, said her favorite part of this year’s performance is a new satirical arrangement of “The 12 Days of Christmas.”

“As a singer, I love performing all the familiar sacred and secular tunes of Christmas,” Sandoz said. “But they can become rather stale without changing them up a bit. With these new arrangements, I find that it simply adds a little sparkle to my traditional favorites.”

Audiences have several other choral concerts from which to choose throughout December, including a number of performances by the Sonoran Desert Chorale, the Orpheus Male Chorus of Phoenix and the Phoenix Chorale at various locations throughout the Valley.

Visions of Sugar-Plums Danced in Their Heads

Of course, no Christmas would be complete without a performance of “The Nutcracker.” A big-screen adaptation of the holiday classic set to composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s enduring score is playing in movie theaters thanks to Walt Disney Pictures, but the story comes to life on stage courtesy of Ballet Etudes through Dec. 16 at Chandler Center for the Arts and Mesa Arts Center.

Ballet Etudes is tied with Ballet Arizona for the longest-running production of “The Nutcracker” in the Valley. Resident choreographer and marketing manager Kellan Meko, whose parents founded Ballet Etudes in 1986, said the production—which traditionally has its first performance on the day after Thanksgiving of each year—holds a particularly special meaning to her.

“On Thanksgiving, the smell of the cooking turkey swirled in the air with the smell of the hot glue gun as last-minute alternations were made to props and headpieces,” Meko explained. “As the creative and logistical forces behind ‘The Nutcracker,’ my parents were at every performance, whether working backstage or performing onstage in character roles, so this production is my holiday season and has wonderful memories tied to it.”

Ballet Arizona and Phoenix Ballet are also presenting their own productions of “The Nutcracker” throughout December. Meanwhile, Center Dance Ensemble is performing Frances Ford Cohen’s “Snow Queen” at Herberger Theater Center through Dec. 16 and the Christian Dance Company will present the 31st anniversary of its holiday show “The Spirit of Christmas” Dec. 8–16 at Chandler Center for the Arts.

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