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LIGHTNING REVIEW: Playhouse show channels meaning of Christmas

‘Flat Rock Playhouse Christmas Extravaganza’ is an original production that runs through Dec. 22. ‘Flat Rock Playhouse Christmas Extravaganza’ is an original production that runs through Dec. 22.

In 1857 lithographer Nathaniel Currier offered his accountant, James Ives, a partnership in his printmaking business. With their simple, hand-colored lithographs of Victorian Christmas scenes, Currier and Ives soon became the keeper of the Christmas tradition for many Americans.

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If a Currier and Ives print is the pinnacle of Christmas for you, then you will love the opening number of this year’s Flat Rock Playhouse Christmas Extravaganza. Ladies and gents in corsets, top hats and beautiful woolen scarves promenade on stage as Erin Rubico, a familiar face and voice on the Playhouse stage, sings Josh Groban’s “Believe.” However, if your idea of Christmas is only as deep as a two-dimensional print, you should leave after the opening number and go to the nearest big box store to enjoy the piped-in Christmas carols. If you stay, you may be forced to expand your idea of Christmas.

It’s not that the Flat Rock Playhouse has replaced the season’s warm, fuzzy feelings with hard edges. Instead, through everything from the varied program, to the lighting and costuming, to the beautiful and challenging arrangements, the locally produced, original show gives us less a cuddly hug and more a therapeutic massage. The performers deliver the classics certainly. But in the surprising minor notes we hear in “Silent Night,” or the flamenco style guitar accompaniment to “Mary Did You Know” or the sheer power of “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “O Holy Night” they also plumb deep longings, raise new possibilities and plant seeds of hope in those who have ears to hear.

The program works so well largely because of the talent assembled in this cast. Frequent friends of Playhouse productions will immediately recognize Preston Dyar and Scott Treadway. Dyar gives a solid anchor for traditionalists to tie to with his straight-ahead rendition of Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song,” while Treadway offers up tradition of a different sort interspersing informative vignettes on the history of the Vagabond Players who founded the Flat Rock Playhouse.

Matthew Glover and Maddie Franke not only created the choreography for the show but perform it as well, singing and hoofing it in a fun rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Love and the Weather” from White Christmas and later clogging up a storm in Dolly Parton’s, “I’ll Be Home with Bells On.” Erin Rubico shines in fun jazz numbers like “The Man with the Bag,” and “Jingle Bells,” but also stuns the audience into reverent silence with “O Holy Night.” Husband and wife duo Ben Hope and Katie Barton pair beautifully in the bluegrass numbers on guitar and double bass and are ably assisted by Kendra Jo Brook’s prodigious fiddling. The three also get to show their versatility. Hope and Barton sing and play in other styles and are especially luminous in the afore mentioned duet, “Mary Did You Know.” Brook switches easily from fiddle to violin adding resonance and poignancy to several numbers.

Recent Playhouse apprentices Blair Ely and Nathan Fister give the show grace and elegance with their classical ballet performances in “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” and “Carol of the Bells.” Claire Griffin, a high school senior from Brevard, more than holds her own among her more seasoned colleagues. She stands out with her gorgeous vocals, especially in a haunting version of “Silent Night.” Through it all, music director Ethan Anderson commands the grand piano at the back of the stage, mostly in silhouette, playing and directing the phenomenal orchestra. The musicians break out everything from a jazz saxophone to tympani drums to get the job done. Adding vocal power to several numbers is a 40-voice choir who, singing at full volume with the ensemble, could raise the roof of that tabernacle in Salt Lake City.

From lighting to sound to staging to costuming, the production values of this show are near perfect. Bad lighting is noticed by an audience, not good lighting – unless it is exceptional lighting. This was exceptional lighting. Together with the lighting, the stage crew made judicious use of a fog machine, got the choir to magically appear in their places on cue, and had the performers play off of each other to good effect all while pulling off numerous quick costume changes. Especially noticeable is that there is very little traditional Christmas red or green in the costuming. The choir wears black and silver. The singers wear elegant gowns of white or blue. The most red you’ll see is in the sequined costumes of the 12-strong chorus line high kicking to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

Matthew Glover, the creator, director and choreographer of the Christmas production, has skillfully selected and ordered the musical numbers and dance routines to allow the audience to have maximum fun, but, more importantly, to avoid the sticky build-up that comes with shallow sentimentality that often plagues the season. Currier and Ives operated under the slogan, “Publishers of Cheap and Popular Prints.” Glover, the cast, the musicians and the technicians have given us a Christmas show that aims not at cheap and popular but at fun, heartening and meaningful.

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Flat Rock Playhouse Christmas Extravaganza runs through Dec. 22. Shows are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. For tickets call 828-693-0731 or visit www.flatrockplayhouse.org.