A television ad promoting the Oklahoma City Philharmonic's “The Christmas Show” catches your eye. You decide to attend, order tickets, make your way downtown and find your seat in the Civic Center Music Hall.
Moments before the show begins, the lights go down, a quiet orchestral interlude sets a mood, the chorus begins to sing, the curtain rises, and the full company launches into a stirring version of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” It's time to surrender to the sights and sounds of Christmas.
Now think about all of the work that goes into making such a production possible. This multimedia holiday offering involves the orchestra, a pops chorale, a dance troupe, a group of children and a featured vocalist.
Planning for this year's event began not long after the 2011 show ended its run. Early on are endless discussions about choosing musical selections, booking talent, what the overall look of the show should be, how much money is budgeted and the hiring of personnel to make the production possible.
Once those decisions are made, music director Joel Levine, director/choreographer Lyn Cramer, set designer/technical director Amanda Foust, lighting designer Chris Dallos, choral director Vince Leseney, costumer Jeffrey Meek and their associates begin creating an outline for the show.
“We generally have the music finalized by May, and I start creating some sketches over the summer,” Foust said. “Those decisions are finalized in early fall, and then we start building new scenic pieces.
“This year, we wanted something visually stimulating for the opening of Act II, so we've built a 16-foot-tall jukebox that has all sorts of lighting elements and a video panel inside it. The number (“Jukebox Christmas Eve”) is quite long, and we're still working out the details about how the video images will happen.”
Let there be light
Foust works closely with Dallos because of the interrelationship between the look of a design element and how it's to be lighted. Thirty years ago, such a partnership couldn't have existed since Foust is based in Minnesota, and Dallos is in New York. But thanks to the immediacy of email, the collaborators can work together almost as easily as if they were in the same workshop.
“I spend a lot of time with the music before I get to Oklahoma, so I come in with a pretty clear sense of the feel of the show,” Dallos said. “Lyn's choreography tells me what I need, from how many people are on stage in a musical number and how we need to get from one scene to the next.
“You're living in a certain environment for a song, whether it's a high-energy number with lots of flashy lighting or a religious piece that doesn't need any of that. We try to compose an arc for the show so the audience can watch a cohesive production. The last thing you want is a static show.”
When Dallos and his lighting programmer arrive in Oklahoma City, they spend an arduous three days making decisions about the subtleties of lighting such a large show. The opening “O Come, All Ye Faithful” has seven lighting looks. The entire show has 250 light cues.
“Lighting is a 3-D experience,” Dallos said. “In a show like this, you not only have lights turning on and off, but turning on and off in time and changing colors at the same time. It's the music that dictates all of that.
“You often hear that a lighting designer is the second director of the show. We give visual cues to the story, we tell an audience where to look and where not to look. We help narrate the story in that sense. I often think of it as flying. It takes a lot of people to get an airplane in the air.”
Another of the production's important elements is costuming. Meek and his two associates devote countless hours to creating designs, ordering fabric, scheduling fittings and the endless stitching that's required to create costumes for the production.
With 20 members of the Philharmonic's Pops Chorale, a dozen dancers (The Mistletoes) and 16 children from the Sooner Theatre and Lyric Theatre's Thelma Gaylord Academy, that's a minimum of four dozen costumes. But the challenges multiply exponentially since most company members change costumes several times during the 90-minute show.
“We build about half of the costumes and buy the rest,” Meek said. “Every other year, we generally create all new costumes. On the off years, about half of the costumes are new.
“If there's a big musical number, I might have 32 people who need one 1950s costume apiece. In the show's finale, there may be 16 women who need evening gowns. Since you can't find 16 matching gowns in one store, you spend a lot of time altering all of that chiffon.”
Not surprisingly, Meek is encouraged to dress his cast in costumes that convey the unmistakable nature of the holiday season. And while dancers costumed as snowflakes and a kick line of Santa Clauses are obvious choices, other designs have a greater degree of subtlety.
“Whatever we're doing, we try to make the music the center of things,” Meek said. “From there, I'm encouraged to make things as Christmas-y as I can. A sea of blue costumes may be beautiful but it doesn't necessarily say ‘Christmas.' We try to stick with iconic Christmas looks.”
Making the music
In early November, Vince Leseney has two six-hour choral rehearsals with a group of singers carefully chosen for the quality of their voices and their ability to blend. Over the years, the Pops Chorale has grown from 12 to 20 singers, the latter being a nice-size chamber choir.
“After classes are out in May, Lyn and I meet with Joel and go through piles and piles of music,” Leseney said. “We end up with a mix of new music and exciting pieces that we haven't performed for a few years. We try not to recycle too much music.”
Leseney writes all of the banter that's exchanged between the featured guest artist (Michelle Ragusa) and the cast members who appear with her in the various musical numbers. He's also quite adept at fashioning new lyrics for well-known songs that aren't necessarily holiday themed.
“In the theater, people backstage like to come up with new lyrics for the songs in the show,” Leseney said. “The first one I did for this show was Irving Berlin's ‘There's No Business Like Show Business.' By adding a few Christmas references, it became ‘There's No Business Like Snow Business.'
“One year, I turned ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy' into ‘Boogie Woogie Santa Claus' and ‘Fernando's Hideaway' (from “The Pajama Game”) became ‘Santa's Hideaway.' This year, we're using ‘It's the Hard Knock Life' (from “Annie”) for some disgruntled elves at the North Pole and ‘Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet' has become ‘Santa, Keep Those Reindeer Quiet.' It's a blast doing those.”
Bringing it together
As the cast rehearses, Foust, Dallos and their assistants keep busy assembling set pieces, running cables, hanging lights, programming the computer that controls the lights and then testing everything to see that it's working properly. One glitch can leave cast members in the dark or grind the show to a halt.
Yet when one considers that the individuals responsible for assembling “The Christmas Show” are all masters of their individual trades, it comes as no surprise that any missteps will be corrected well before opening night.
“The creative team has been working together for several years now, so we speak in a kind of shorthand,” Meek said. “I know what information they need to get their work done and they know what I do. Everybody is working toward the same goal. Some might refer to what we do as craziness but we like to call it Christmas magic.”