ISO and Guests Breathe Fresh Life into Yuletide Celebration

Angela Brown, Ben Crawford, and Time for Three get to show off their acclaimed chops without overshadowing the holiday spirit itself.

‘Tis the season to wax either whimsical or cynical, depending on who you are. The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s IPL Yuletide Celebration achieves the former with healthy doses of nostalgia and polish. This has long been the case for the annual holiday extravaganza put on at Hilbert Circle Theatre, but the show’s 2014 iteration sees fresh life breathed into it by new takes on classics and smart repertoire choices that fuse the throwback vibe of Yuletide with today’s Top 40 hits. Two hours after entering, Grandma and grandson will leave the theater with parallel smiles painted on their faces.
International opera star Angela Brown, one of local Crispus Attucks High School’s finest exports, finds herself much more at ease this season than two years ago when she debuted as a Yuletide co-lead. Though her follicles are kept up in a beautiful top bun all evening, she lets her proverbial hair down with great humor and warmth. She of the three-octave range gets to shine—yea, soar—on “Rise Up, Shepherd,” “Cantique de Noel (O Holy Night),” and “Angels We Have Heard on High.” She has less to prove this time out, with her voice’s easy power reaching the room’s farthest corners, and the repertoire she’s given this year is just plain better. Whether standing in to bring opera to guest stars Time for Three’s “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” or reigning over the closing “Angels We Have Heard on High,” Brown owns all her first-rate diva qualities; she also introduces and transitions various segments of the production with aplomb.
Brown dazzles in 10 gorgeous gowns over the course of the proceedings, including six in Act 1 alone, all designed by Clare Henkel. After the opening-night performance, Henkel told IM that the show on the whole involves 255 costumes and that, contrary to what one might think, Brown actually has fewer outfitting changes over the course of the show than does co-host Ben Crawford.
About Crawford, Brown’s dashing co-host: He’s a Broadway stalwart with a turn as the titular character in Shrek under his belt. Mercifully, he doesn’t have to suffer inhabiting the role of another green creature here, that being the Grinch (who appears briefly during a sousaphone-fronted number featuring Tony Kniffen). But he does get to flex his old-fashioned showman chops. His high notes arrive with a reliable, delightful pop sensibility while, on more classically slanted numbers, he possesses a robust lower register that all but wraps the audience in a warm blanket of sound. With that, mixed with his comedic antics and expressions throughout, you could arguably say he steals the show.
Local talent Melissa Schott, a tap instructor by trade, dances up a storm amidst her band of Claus-costumed mercenaries in “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town!” to seal Act 1. Donning a blond wig to lead the prancing Santas (composed of company members both male and female sporting snow-white beards and all), her infectious energy and sheer skill provide a crowd-pleasing climax—no small feat considering this bit has appeared in the production for years.
Elsewhere, Jim Hogan’s spry, blue-eyed soul infiltrates Pharrell Williams’s ubiquitous hit “Happy” in such a way that one forgets how pesky that ditty became last year. Later on, Crawford and his merry gentlemen deliver a rousing “Let It Go” from Frozen that catalyzes one of the performance’s biggest rounds of applause. The arrangement comes from Deke Sharon, who fashioned harmonies for both Pitch Perfect movies, and the performance begins with solos by Joseph Perkins Jr. and Corby York of the Indianapolis Men’s Chorus before Crawford, sporting a debonair navy tux coat, truly takes over. There’s an unspoken joy about the whole thing.
The night’s choreography comes courtesy of Jennifer Ladner’s creative forces, coupled with those of associate choreographer Anne Nicole Beck, who fashioned dance sequences for several numbers herself and also sang and danced all show long—the portrait of a versatile, quintessential pro. The ISO itself, under the steady hand of maestro Jack Everly, did what it does best in the Yuletide setting, providing all the exquisite flow while surrendering the romping show to an array of characters and personalities.
Some of Act 2’s set designs do seem a bit forced. All sequins and sparkles aside, a less-is-more approach would make all the difference. Lighted icicles literally hanging over the stars onstage during the Frozen tribute’s glorious medley  distract from Kristen Noonan’s beautiful aerial work. Likewise, glowing nutcrackers onstage during Time for Three’s “Let It Snow Nutcrackers!” number seem extraneous. Let these guys stand alone in the spotlight.
On the whole, Yuletide remains a wonderfully hopeful and care-releasing show in the ISO’s season, eagerly anticipated and—if the post-Thanksgiving season alone can’t do it—apt to melt even the most resistant audience member’s icy viscera.
Now through Dec. 23 on select dates. Tickets $40 to $71 adults, $25 to $55 children 4–12. Hilbert Circle Theatre, 45 Monument Circle, 317-639-4300.