If the program for A Christmas Celebration played safe, there was comfort in familiarity, much to the enjoyment of the Festival Theatre audience.
With Mitchell Butel (State Theatre Company SA artistic director) at the helm as creative director, MC and vocalist, there was no shortage of personality and patter.
Consider what a wide audience might expect of such an evening. You could think show music, classical pieces, something traditional, and perhaps a touch of pop. A Christmas Celebration offered all of these but it was clear from many arrangements that swing was the thing – and once with a touch of calypso, too.
The accent was clearly on voice, and up tempo at that. The ASO provided terrific and lively support, with Luke Dolman conducting. The orchestra had its own time in the spotlight, too, initially with “A Welcome to Christmas”, an extended medley of eminently recognisable Christmas tunes, and, later, with excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” and “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”.
Apart from Butel, the vocals came from ARIA-award winning quartet The Idea of North and from Johanna Allen. The celebrated quartet showed the sheer beauty of carefully blended voices, especially in their a capella work. Allen’s experience in cabaret and musicals shone through, with her “O Holy Night” a particular stand-out.
Most of the selected works were straight-down-the middle choices, bound to appeal to a Proms type of audience. I would quibble with a couple that seemed too light, even if comic and entertaining. The quality dipped there.
Hearing The Idea of North expertly singing the traditional “I Saw Three Ships” had me wondering how they might treat the song in a version closer to old arrangements, including the common Irish style. Regardless, they were in top form. Their rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “River” fitted in nicely as the pop choice, though this was quite lush compared with the more spare and poignant original.
The stage was colourfully dressed with Christmas trees and over-sized baubles, but the most commanding aspect was the Adelaide Festival Centre’s huge restored pipe organ, played by David Heah. Featured in the first piece, its enchanting tones – and especially that visceral bass – embellished later works as well.
Christmas shows risk being as insincere as tinsel but this one was both genuine and fit for purpose. It bounced with energy and joy, and offered sterling artistic performances to boot. Just what we need during these challenging times.
ASO’s A Christmas Celebration continues with an evening performance tonight (Friday), plus a matinee and evening show on Saturday.