Thursday, December 12, 2013

REVIEW: Vancouver's Singing Christmas Tree

THEY LIED TO ME! There was no Singing Tree! For forty years, there have been people singing in a tree. No longer so, but advertised as such. THAT was a major shock; I walked in and my mouth dropped open...several bulbs in the string shorted out, but, fortunately, the rest stayed lit.

One of those amazing panoramic shots you can take with an iPod shows the
new stage layout without a tree-shaped choir riser.

The Vancouver Singing Christmas Tree at the Vancouver First Church of God has long been a standing tradition and the highlight of the season for thousands. For more than forty years the church has offered this variety Christmas show FREE to the public.

For 40 years, up until the this year, the
choir sang from a tree-like structure.
(This photo from 2012.)
This year the 41st annual Singing Christmas Tree changed things up quite a bit by omitting the tree and by bringing in a couple of guest artists: Timothy Greenidge and pianist Jim Fischer. But then, the production team has always been looking for a fresh cut.

I worked on the show as TD and Creative Consultant five years running. While several traditions remain from the beginning (like the choir, an angel choir, the pajama choir and the nativity tableau) many things have, indeed, changed. During the time I worked on the Tree we endeavored to add more pop music, more kid-friendly features, and more glitz. 

Image made with white gloves under UV.
Blacklight (UV) effects, a percussion group reminiscent of STOMP, colorful kites, streamers, bubbles, sacred dance, snow falling over the audience, and even pyro have all been part of the show over the years.

During it's heyday the Tree show was divided into two sections: a secular first half and a sacred second half. It also played over two weekends and to more than 10,000 patrons. In the past few years it has been seen by only 6,000 or so over one weekend plus a day (Wed.). Maybe, in part, dwindling audiences (or perhaps church-wide volunteer enthusiasm) is (are) why new changes have been made?

You can see more photos of the former look and read more about the show's history and some speculations I made in last year's review here.

The Show

Okay, I was disappointed that the tree--the singing structure--was gone (but, it was always a bear to set up). I got over it (but the name should change to be truthful). I liked the show which consisted of three acts. It still had the children's PJ choir (that's something that could go in my opinion) and a fantastic blacklight hand mime. There were hand bells and dancing angels.

It still had dramatic elements, too, though pared back. The drama had a tad of humor, but other than that the whimsy and comedy have been greatly truncated. I especially enjoyed the running monologue presentation A Visit from Dr. Luke which was so well delivered by Jan van Amerongen.

Screens flank the stage showing nostalgic film of bygone
Christmases during Somewhere in My Memory.
Another endearing element, which was presented during the song "Somewhere in My Memory," was the video footage (which had to have been transferred from 8mm film) from Christmases in the early 1960's. I was a kid then (yeah, I'm as old as dirt) and it brought back many cool memories. Perhaps I enjoyed this most of all. The girl trio consisting of Gwendolyn Cayle,  Grace and Sereena Oberst sang nicely.

But, I also greatly enjoyed the LIVE accompaniment by Jim Fischer (piano) and band. Previous trees, at least those I saw or worked on, used tracks--that keeps everything consistent and sounding perfect. However, there's nothing like a great live band and this one was. It wasn't big or orchestral, but it sounded great. All accompaniments were exceptional, but the highlight piece was "Christmas Fantasy," a medley of Christmas classics headlined wonderfully by Fischer.

The Singers

Timothy Greenidge (center) and Jim Fischer (at piano).
The choir, under the direction of Randy Frasier,  never sounded better and the soloists were awesome. But there was a problem with that, too. There were very few solos and they were all taken by Ashlee Waldbuaer and Greenidge. So, instead of showcasing the church's talent (Waldbuaer is a member, Greenidge is not), the church brought out the "pros." I'm not sure I like that; I'm not sure I don't. Both sang marvelously. [The sound team could punch up the solo volume a bit though.]

The hand mime song "The Prayer," was, once again, a touching highlight. Well sung by the choir and well delivered visually by the mime ensemble under the direction of Julie Murphy and, of course, blacklight. The bell choir, under the direction of Mark Kelly, has also never been better.

The Staging

Okay, I already said: No tree. That was a bit to shake, but I did. There were a few hiccups opening night, but nothing serious that wasn't remedied, and they probably won't be seen again.

After years of stagnation, the lighting design (by TD/LD Nathan Allsworth) has been completely reworked and nicely done at that. There was an overall good look, though at times uneven, and several scenes were delightfully colored.

I did miss the color-flashing Christmas lights that adorned the former tree. Perhaps in the future some programmable synchronized lighting (like you see in housing displays these days) could be used. That would be attractive and contemporary.

The Skinny

The Tree continues this Friday, December 11 and Friday, December 13 at 7 p.m., as well as Saturday and Sunday, December 14 and 15 at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Performances are at the church, 3300 NE 78th St., Vancouver, Wash. I suggest you come early as the show can pack out, and please bring a fresh canned food donation for The Giving Closet, to help those in need this Christmas season!

And next year, if you're done with the tree structure, let's (truthfully) call it for what it is.

Review by Gregory E. Zschomler.
Photos by various Zschomlers.

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