The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s revered, annual “IPL Yuletide Celebration,” with Ty Johnson as its executive producer, is always a popular holiday attraction. But it is always extra special when the host is a internationally known performer with local roots. Notables who have hosted in the past have included opera singer Angela Brown and Christian music star Sandi Patty. This year the ISO, led by principal pops conductor, Jack Everly, pulled off a pop culture coup by snagging guest star Josh Kaufman ,the sixth season winner of the NBC hit reality series, “The Voice.” He became known to millions after he won the title in 2014.
Along with media colleagues I attended the show’s final dress rehearsal, Thursday, Dec. 1 at the Hilbert Circle Theatre in downtown Indianapolis.
Kaufman, was born and raised in Florida and lived in Virginia during high school, but in his opening remarks at the top of the show, he said that he has lived in Indy for 20 years so he considers it “my home town.” Pointing out the irony of hosting “Yuletide,” Kaufman remarked that it wasn’t that long ago, before he became famous, that he worked (2011-14) a few doors down from the Hilbert, regularly singing and playing guitar, at the Potbelly Sandwhich Shop.
Kaufman,celebrated for his velvety-voiced renditions of R & B songs, certainly demonstrated that he could sing any genre of music., as evidenced by his performance of pop songs and carols that were included in the show’s program. At the same time, however, Kaufman, though pleasant and warm, seemed most comfortable when he was singing soul-flavored music. Otherwise, he appeared stiff and out of his element as a host as he shared scripted commentary with the audience. Some of that may be attributed to nerves. But hopefully, with some shows under his belt, Kaufman’s comfort level has increased and he’s now conveying more energy. Nevertheless, hearing Kaufman’s superb tenor voice reminded me why all four judges on “The Voice” turned their chairs in unison towards him during his audition.
Along with the perennial attractions that “Yuletide” audiences have come to expect such as “Twas The Night Before Christmas,” with its reindeer puppets atop poles carried by handlers, and the tap dancing Santas that close Act 1, there were some new additions to the slick big-budget, Broadway-Style show which is the best in town when it comes to pulling out all the stops when it comes to production.
Chief among the new material was a segment with Kaufman, playing an elf, competing in “Santa’s Choice, a clever send up, complete with emcee and judges, of the television show that made him a star
A crowd favorite were identical twin tap dancers, Sean and John Scott who who played toy soldiers in a Toy Shop sequence during which they dazzled the audience with their lighting speed virtuosity and vitality in “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers.”
One of Kaufman’s most relaxed performances came when he sang “Jingle Bells” with the stunning trio of N’Kenge, Natalie Renee and Kara Watkins as back up singers.
Popular local actor and comedienne, Claire Wilcher, making her “Yuletide” debut, stood out for her comical performance as Mrs.Claus, singing a duet with Aaron Fuksa as Santa Claus, in “Mrs. Claus’ Lament.”
As usual, “Yuletide” featured a top drawer ensemble expertly guided by vocal director Greg Sanders and stage director/choreographer Jennifer Ladner, respectively. The multi talented performers were especially entertaining in a “A Merry Christmas Mash-Up” that included such songs as “Sleigh Ride,” “Marshmallow World,” Someday Christmas,” “Run Run Rudolph,” and “Santa’s Coming to Town.”
And of course, always inspiring for its artistry and the majestic quality of its sounds was the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, itself, especially during its moving performance of “Away in a Manger.”
Accounting for the aforementioned richness of the spectacle’s lavish production elements are Stuart Duke’s lighting design, Clare Henkel’s extravagant costumes, Gregory Hill’s scenic design and the sound design of RandyHansen and Alan Allford.
For tickets and information about “IPL Yuletide Celebration” call (318) 639-4300 or visit www.indianapolissymphony.org.