Thursday, December 6, 2012

REVIEWS: Singing Christmas Tree an Annual Holiday Treat for 40 Years

Following are not one but TWO REVIEWS of the Vancouver First Church of God "Singing Christmas Tree."

Review #1 by Gregory E. Zschomler
The Vancouver "Singing Christmas Tree" has been a hometown favorite for 40 years! It has seen many changes over the years, but three things are certain: 
Christmas Carolers (under the direction of Terry Mendenall) lead
patrons in "Deck the Hallls" at Vancouver First Church of God.

  1. There is a tree
  2. There is singing, and 
  3. There is a Christ-child

This year's anniversary offering mixes those elements with drama, dance, and other visual treats. No other Vancouver Christmas production is so long running and so inspirational. I've been going to this production for twenty years and some years ago I worked on it as Tech. Director.

Here's how I think this year's show added up:

The Singing Christmas Tree Choir.
More than 150 people participate on stage and behind it. There are 50+ voices in the tree choir. There are angel dancers (very nicely choreographed by Lyndsay Abulan, Rhonda Ward, Christina Wilder and McKayla Wixom) and shepherds (who also dance--badly), Wisemen (awesome costumes by Ruth Zschomler), and a Christmas star shining above the Holy Family (with a live baby) in a manger.

The drama features Rich Liedtke (R) as
a pastor trying to bring hope to his city.
A drama, by John R. Plastow, (ably directed by Marla Riley) weaves through the production between musical numbers. It is a message of hope presented in modern times and centers on characters that gather near a newsstand in a city park. An inner-city church decides to bring their annual Christmas production outside the church walls and into the park. The pastor goes about inviting each of the token characters (the busy businessman, the bag lady, the sullen teen, and the religious searcher) to the program. The drama culminates in the Nativity and each character responds in their own way. The script could have been better, but the performances were fine.

Blacklight (UV) lit miming hands form
the Christmas star.
There's also a touching blacklight (UV) hand mime, choreographed by Julie Murphy, to the beautiful song "Beyond the Manger." The longtime (too long, in my opinion) traditional pajama (toddlers) choir (Babette Terry, dir.), the Kingsway school choir (Darrell Hossler, dir.), a hand bell choir (Nola Olson, dir.), carolers (Terry Mendenall, dir.), and more in the two-hour presentation.

The Tree choir, under the direction of Randy Frasier, has never sounded better. The numbers were big and bold and rich. Especially nice were Celebration!, All Glory, and Beyond the Manager. Oddly the show's final number and one of my all-time favorite songs, This Little Child, needed some work. Other songs included a carol medley, Join the Angels (with angel dance), Thine is the Kingdom and the bouncy Somethin's Up (with the dumb shepherd dance).

This photo shows the full set for the production.
The sets were nicely designed, though simple, and constructed in an easy-to-use fold-out fashion. The lighting, after ten years unchanged, was simplified, but still effectively lit the show. Less flashy and a tad less dramatic. The audio was clear and crisp and nearly perfect. Very little video was used in the show.


Vancouver First Church of God's annual Singing Christmas Tree has seen a lot of change over the past 40 years. I can only speak to the last twenty.

About twenty years ago, under the direction of Frank Yerden, when Gerald Marvel was pastor, the tree grew in popularity. Yerden began introducing innovation. He flew an angel over the congregation. He had the pastor ride his Harley into the sanctuary and sing like Elvis. He expanded the musical repertoire to include pop sounds and secular songs with a live orchestra and organ.

Bob Velkinburg has long volunteered as the green Wiseman; he's
always the one who picks up the baby Jesus for blessing.
Ten years ago, under the direction of Lynn Higgins, and when Mitchell Burch was pastor, the Tree took on the personification of a variety show. The first act was secular pop Christmas songs, the second half sacred songs and hymns. Higgins introduced dancing angels, expanded drama sketches, a percussion group known as THUMP, a Gospel quartet, blacklight effects, bubbles, snowfall over the audience, multimedia, tableau, kites, confetti and much more. He mixed live orchestra and tracks--eventually going to tracks only.  During this heyday upwards of 10,000 people could see the show in ten performances over two weekends--some with standing room only and people turned away.

Angels dance in praise to the Lord Jesus.
About seven years ago, after Higgins and Burch left, the Tree came, for a short time, under the direction of Jeff Waldbauer who went for a more formal and sacred approach. Eventually Don Doe became pastor and the Tree's direction came under under Randy Frasier. While the program is still of highest quality and very inspirational it has, in recent years, been decreasing in popularity. There are now only six performances over a one week period, meaning only about 6,000 people can see it any given year.

Angels surround the manager in the Nativity tableau.
Perhaps, sadly, at forty years it is time to retire the production? Or, perhaps, it can be rekindled and hit fifty with a new fire. I don't think the decline has a lot to do with the quality of the show; I think that the general public is taking less interest in the spiritual meaning of Christmas, too distracted by all the secular commercialism. Which is, perhaps, all the more reason to keep offering the program.

How To Go to the Show

The annoyingly cute pajama choir.
The FREE show can be seen 7 p.m. Friday, December 7; 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, December 8 and 9. Patrons are encouraged to bring a canned food donation for The Giving Closet, to help those in need this Christmas season! Come early for a good seat; doors open one hour prior to curtain.

First Church of God is located at 3300 NE 78th St. Vancouver, Wash. 
Call 360-574-1611 if you have questions.

All photographs by Gregory E. Zschomler

Review #2 by Dennis Sparks:

The Christmas Story

The "Singing Christmas Tree" is a well-established American tradition and the format is used at a number of Churches and theaters. They take a great deal of time and effort to construct, as they consist of many boughs and lights, in order to resemble a giant Christmas Tree, replete with human singers interwoven among them. This one is quite impressive, with the singers doing traditional Christmas songs as well as some modern interpretations.

There was also a story interspersed among the songs reflecting a part of our modern world and how we may have forgotten the true message of Christmas. Among the characters representing various factions of our society were a stock broker, an intellectual, a street person, a possible runaway, a book seller and a Pastor of a small church in the community. The story revolves around the Pastor instituting discussions around the state of the world and the importance of the Christmas message to change the condition of things.

The script, by Mr. Palstow, was quite good. Although it didn’t cover all the various opposing elements in the world, it did a fair job of creating a microcosm of a portion of them. All the actors were good, in particular those portraying Charlie, Ben and Pastor Tom. The timing was uneven though and cues could have been picked up faster at times, but nicely done, nevertheless. 

The Staging

Technically the miking was very good, as were the lights. The flow of the show was relatively smooth, as it changes from one scene to another. The mobile church doors were a nice touch. And the costuming of the Wise Men was very impressive, showing off the rich fabrics and colors.

Some highlights were the dancing angels and shepherds, expressive and well choreographed. The Hallelujah Bells also gave the show an exciting touch, playing Calkin’s I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, with text by Longfellow, and Tchaikovsky’s Trepak. And the voice choir did a rousing rendition of Celebration and the powerful Thine is the Kingdom (arrangements by Dave Williamson) were impressive.

But, by far, the stars of the evening were the Hand Mimes (directed by Julie Murphy)--a group of individuals with white gloves and a blacklight on them, against a dark background, stole the show. They mimed to the song, Beyond the Manager (well sung by Rebecca J. Peck), creating various images from the song such as a manager, a dove, the cross, etc. with only their gloved hands. Very moving. This alone was have been worth the evening. 

The Conclusion

Unless you get there early, parking can be a problem. It was a packed house so best plan on getting there an hour ahead of time.  But the evening's show, running about two hours, has some impressive moments. It’s worth your time and, I think, you’ll agree.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with Dennis Sparks about the movable doors and the hand mimes. I hadn't commented how much the hand mimes touched me because they always do, I guess. I see them every year and don't see the effect any more as being all that innovative since I bought the blacklights for the show ten years ago. I still disagree about the script. I thought it was redundant and kept pressing the same point w/o elaborating or clarifying. I also agree with Sparks about the slow delivery. It could have and should have clipped along better. And, after seeing it again, and seeing how much the audience loved it, I have come to appreciate the shepherd dance, although I felt it out of place. I'm also gald he liked my wife's costumes. ~Greg