YORK Stage director Nik Briggs likes to try out different shows for the Christmas season.
Whether staging the company’s one-off pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, in the Covid winter of a socially distanced 2020 at Theatre@41, or his sparkling, exuberant Elf The Musical at the Grand Opera House in 2021, he has come up trumps.
This winter, he is presenting not one, but two shows, back at Theatre@41. By day, Mick Liversidge’s Mr Claus and Joanne Theaker’s Mrs Claus are to be found in their very busy house, preparing for the big day but still finding time to entertain children with 45 minutes of sing-a-longs, Christmas stories, interactive wonderment and Christmas songs aplenty each day until Saturday in Santa’s Sing-A-Long.
By night, diverse York Stage vocal talent is serving up a Festive Feast of Christmas songs, ranging from the traditional chestnuts to modern pop, washed down with lashings of musical theatre favourites, under the musical direction of Adam Tomlinson.
Always on hand with quips or quiz questions at the keyboard, he is accompanied by Rosie Morris on bass and Alex Woolgar on drums to one side of the raised end-on stage in an auditorium bedecked with festive lighting, a red bow and grey backdrop, decorations, ceiling baubles, a wood burner, Christmas stockings, tinsel tassels and assorted Christmas trees. Merry Christmas reads the lettering above the mantlepiece.
To the other side are gathered 11 singers, who will be a constant presence, either seated on chairs or stools and gazing stage-wards supportively, when not singing, or leaping up to take centre stage in solos, duets, trios or quintets or to share in an ensemble number.
In glittering party frocks, York Stage regulars Katie Melia, Jess Main, Tracey Rea, Cyanne Unamba Oparah, Hannah Shaw and Carly Morton are joined for the first time by Guildhall School of Music & Drama student Jess Parnell.
Alongside the bow-tied, dinner-jacketed Matthew Clarke, Stuart Hutchinson and Jack Hooper is Finn East, all in black at Friday’s performance, adding a Jack Black in School Of Rock vibe to the festive formality around him. Welcome back Finn. So pleased to see you restored to the York Stage ranks; we have missed you, big fella.
The first half opens with That Time Of Year (Olaf’s Frozen Adventure), a chance for all the company to loosen their vocal chords, before Matthew Clarke confirms It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas and Finn East reaches for his guitar in Chris Rea’s winter warmer Driving Home For Christmas.
Musical theatre is represented in the spot-on choice of Turkey Lurkey Time from Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s Promises, Promises, and those promises are certainly delivered by Carly Morton, Katie Melia and Jess Parnell.
Oh, what fun it is for Hutchinson, Clarke, Jess Main, Cyanne Unamba Oparah and Tracey Rea to sing James Lord Pierpont’s Jingle Bells, surely the jolliest ride to Christmas of all the seasonal favourites.
Rea’s rendition of Christmas Song, full of diva drama, leads off a run of solo numbers. Unamba Oparah, in red, turns up the heat in the cheeky Santa Baby, then Hannah Shaw impressively rides the Weimar cabaret-style twists & turns and mood changes of a woman scorned in Surabaya Santa, from Jason Robert Brown’s 1997 musical Songs For A New World: another inspired pick for a set list with room to surprise and seek out less familiar pearls. Whereupon Jess Parnell announces a new talent to watch with Christmas Lullaby, pure and midnight clear.
Songs from Christmas films are heralded by, what else, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas from 1942’s Holiday Inn, in a dreamy duet for a crooning Clarke and Melia. Bags of personality filter through the combative You’re A Mean One Mr Grinch, Jack Hooper and East jousting ever more grouchily with each retort from behind magic light books in the show’s comedic high point.
A Christmas at the Movies Medley, arranged delightfully by Tomlinson, sees out the first half in the merriest Christmas spirit.
Bohemian Rhapsody might not be an obvious choice for a Festive Feast, but Queen’s rock-operatic behemoth twice topped the Christmas chart, in 1975 and 1991, a month after Freddie Mercury’s death. What an second-half opener it proves in an ensemble number that showcases the company’s singing chops, nods to the iconic video’s torch-lit operatic Galileo section, then rocks out gloriously.
Another Christmas number one, 1983’s Only You, is transformed from the Flying Pickets’ a cappella sextet to Only Stu, Hutchinson flying solo with all the bleak midwinter yearning of Vince Clarke’s paean to lost love.
Melia seeks out a reviving cocktail mid-song in the breathless rush of the daffy I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas and Shaw’s Holly Jolly Christmas sure is perky and bright. Parnell excels again in the Basque folk carol Gabriel’s Message, to Tomlinson’s minimalist accompaniment, as the mood turns more reflective, and magical too, in the ensemble performance of another folk carol, Gaudete, as popularised in Steeleye Span’s 1973 a cappella hit. Stepping out from behind the keys, Tomlinson extracts spine-tingling choral interplay from his singers.
Joni Mitchell’s River, from 1971’s Blue album, was never released as a single but has become her second-most covered song. Here, company leading lady Carly Morton’s gorgeous version re-emphasises why, capturing the heartbroken Mitchell’s wish for a river she could skate away on.
Christmas can be a season of tears as much as good cheer, as represented in Festive Feast’s programme, but it feels right that the home straight should accentuate the joys, from Hooper’s It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year to Unamba Oparah and Shaw’s all-female reinvigoration of Baby It’s Cold Outside, a song that some considered to be coercive in its original man-cajoling-woman call-and-respond format.
Jess Main’s A Place Called Home is as warming as that wood burner looks on stage, and now is the time for what Tomlinson calls “a bit of a Christmas banger”. “I’ll try” says Morton, as she starts to climb the vertiginous vocal slopes of Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You…and duly hits the peaks, joined in joyful celebration by her fellow singers.
No better way to finish than with We Wish You A Merry Christmas, served a cappella, as York Stage revels in parading vocal prowess beyond the realms of musical theatre.
York Stage in Festive Feast, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York. Further performances, Tuesday to Friday, 8pm. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk (for Santa’s Sing-A-Long too).