New York City has the annual Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall, and The Washington Ballet’s The Nutcracker dazzles audiences each December in the nation’s capital. But for the past six years, Western North Carolina residents haven’t had to leave the area to experience a top-tier holiday extravaganza.
A Flat Rock Playhouse Christmas, which debuted in 2017, features a wealth of singing, dancing, music and comedy to help ring in the season. And as impressive as these performances are, it’s the nonprofit theater’s behind-the-scenes efforts to launch each year’s production that make the annual event that much more stunning.
This year’s edition features 31 collective performances running Friday, Nov. 24-Thursday, Dec. 21. Helming the show for the first time is Ethan Andersen, FRP’s resident music director. He takes over for creator Matthew Glover, who moved to Spartanburg in August.
Andersen, who has been involved in the holiday production since its inception, says he’s up to the challenge.
“In years prior, we did a [holiday] musical or concert offering. And then we’d done a few years of a really great version of A Christmas Carol,” Andersen says. “In 2017, we were wanting to create a holiday tradition — not only for us here but really for the town of Flat Rock and the town of Hendersonville.”
At the time, Glover took the lead on the project and recruited an ensemble of FRP veteran performers. He also partnered with Pat’s School of Dance in Hendersonville to feature its youth hoofers and incorporated the FRP chorus, a volunteer group of vocalists from the community. While those three elements have remained staples, everything else each year is subject to change, including the cast.
“The idea being every year would feel similar in structure and in terms of what the audience could expect, but every year is different in terms of who we’re bringing down, what talent, what songs — even the energy of the show,” Andersen says. “It’s evolved over the years into something that we now have a structure to, and we know what works and what doesn’t.”
Though some productions have a decidedly traditional tone and stick to classic carols and seasonal tunes, Anderson says his debut at the helm will feature more contemporary songs and be slightly sillier than most years. Helping him behind the scenes is Producing Artistic Director Lisa K. Bryant and choreographer Lauren Rogers Hopkins, as well as the theater’s crew.
“This year is especially exciting as I’m kind of taking the reins and creating the show and molding it,” he says. “I have a lot of experience being a part of it, but now it’s sort of something I can guide.”
We’ve got HOW many days?
Andersen began planning for A Flat Rock Playhouse Christmas in the not quite winter wonderland of August.
“We have to determine the set list. We have to determine the flow of the show. It’s much more than just picking songs — like, we can’t have four ballads back to back,” he says. “And then also it’s a draft one of that — we have to wait and see who can do the show because we want to cater to their talents.”
Among the choices made for 2023 were picking a new tune where tap dancer Maddie Franke could again show off her skills, plus songs that highlight the pop-friendly vocals of Gabriella Gomez, a former apprentice making her Christmas show debut. Music also needs to be ready for Pat’s School of Dance so that they can choreograph a handful of routines and practice throughout their fall semester.
Throughout the production, Andersen plays piano on stage with Paul Babelay (drums/percussion) — who also makes the most of a vibraphone solo each year — and Ryan Guerra (guitar/bass). While that jazz combo works for smaller numbers, more epic selections incorporate strings and horns, and it’s up to Andersen to work up orchestrations and hire additional musicians.
On top of that, he met with tech collaborators in mid-October to start planning lighting and projections, and also started working with the chorus around that time. Behind the scenes, the costume department is hard at work, crafting a range of designs.
“It really won’t come together until we start rehearsing about a week and a half before it opens — which is sort of insane,” Andersen says. “It’s a lot to squeeze into 10 days right before Thanksgiving.”
He adds that any more lead time would interfere with FRP’s other productions. But the tight schedule has never impeded the final results.
“It always works,” Andersen says. “And it’s always a fun time — there’s the Christmas energy; there’s just the energy of it being the final show of the season and everyone knowing each other in the cast. It’s a camaraderie that we’re all just putting the show on and getting it on its feet.”
And it’s not just Christmas selections that will be performed. Andersen is excited to feature a Hanukkah song to honor the area’s numerous Jewish members, and what he calls “an around-the-world medley to capture other holiday songs and traditions.” With these inclusive efforts, Andersen and his colleagues hope to make A Flat Rock Playhouse Christmas appeal to as much of the community as possible and build on its already revered reputation.
“Ultimately, we want it to be a show that people in this area can know is coming, they can plan for it — and perhaps it’s a family tradition that they can all come to during the holidays,” he says.
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