A&E: Patty melts ‘Yuletide’ hearts

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It’s been a good number of years since I’ve joined what seems like half of central Indiana at the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s “Yuletide Celebration.” That’s no slight to the institution, just a reality of my arts going-I tend to gravitate toward the new experience rather than the familiar. And traditions of any kind are built on familiarity.

Which sets me against the flow of concert- and theatergoers this month. After all, December is the time of Nutcrackers, Scrooges and carol-based shows. And I’ll venture to guess that’s the case not because artistic directors are burning to do these shows, but because audiences have demonstrated a strong desire to go to them.

Nothing wrong with that, of course. The ISO and Indiana Repertory Theatre and American Cabaret Theatre and Beef & Boards and dance group after dance group would be foolish not to offer a holiday show. And skilled artistic directors take these thematic restrictions as challenges. All seem to be wisely and honestly asking “How can we do a show that pleases holiday-minded audiences while still operating within the core of our creative mission?”

The symphony addresses that on two fronts, offering a one-night only Classical Christmas concert (which occurred on Dec. 8) and devoting about a month of performances to its “Yuletide Celebration” (which runs through Dec. 23).

I caught the latter at a friends-and-family preview that had the expected wildly enthusiastic crowd. The show, which adds new elements each year, played less like an ISO concert and more like a television special circa 1982. Imagine “A Sandi Patty Holiday Special” and you get the idea. The formula: a string of familiar songs, a little banter, a special-guest star, a parade of gowns for the hostess (suitable, for the most part, except for one that makes her look like Ursula, the sea witch from “The Little Mermaid”), a heartwarming choir, some world-class singing, and an X-mas-themed comedy sketch that serves as a rationale to do a non-holiday song (“Show People,” from the Kander and Ebb musical “Curtains.”) With a few topical references that fail in their effort to make the whole thing hip.

A few thudded punch lines, though, do little damage to the overall show. The ISO players, who could slack off in a supporting role, are strong and committed throughout. The African Children’s Choir is spirited and in good voice (although, let’s be honest, kind of beyond criticism), Indianapolis Colt Ben Utecht demonstrates a smile-inducing stage presence singing with Patty on “What Are You Doing New Years’ Eve?” (alas, at select performances only due to his day job), and the reindeer puppets still have their charm.

As for Patty, she’s on almost from start to finish. And if the whole “Getting to Know You” routine with the African Children’s Choir comes across awkwardly (we don’t, in fact, get to know them very well) and other sequences have the passion of “Lawrence Welk Show” numbers, Patty more than makes up the difference at the show’s climax. By the time she kicks into “Star of Bethlehem” and “O Holy Night,” your younger kids may well be losing interest. But that’s the time when adults in the audience finally hear this singer of power and conviction in her element. It’s when her star shines brightly.

There’s greater consistency at “A Very Phoenix Xmas” (through Dec. 23), but unfortunately that translates here as consistently mediocre. While there’s little to dislike in this sketch show (with pieces predominantly written by local writers), there’s just as little to like. Overall, it feels like the most talented people at your office have gathered to reluctantly perform sketches by the mildly amusing guy in H.R. Which is OK if you are really in a generous holiday spirit, but not nearly up to the standards of the Phoenix Theatre.

Since IBJ launched this column in May, I’ve gotten lots of letters from artists, audience, administrators and arts board members. Through e-mail, we’ve shared, opined, debated and wrestled with A&E issues. And we’ve gotten scrappy about the role of the media in all of this.

Now I’d like you to be an even greater part of that conversation.

On Dec. 10, we’ll be launching Lou Harry’s A&E, the latest IBJ blog. You’ll be able to find it at www.ibj.comand, from there, you can either read it on the site or subscribe.

In the first of a just-about-daily dialogue on arts and entertainment, we’ll be talking about the most satisfying stuff you’ve seen on area stages and in local galleries during 2007. And we’ll explore what Indy isn’t offering.

Plus we’ll be launching IBJ Night at the Movies, with free passes available for what looks like one of the best films of the holiday season.

I look forward to continuing our discussion of arts and entertainment here, in our every-Thursday IBJ Daily A&E e-mail, and now at Lou Harry’s A&E blog.

Meet you there Monday afternoon.

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