By Kristin Shafel Omiccioli December 10, 2014
The Heartland Men’s Chorus was bursting with hometown pride and holiday spirit in its latest show, “Kansas City Christmas,” presented at the Folly Theater last weekend.
In addition to featuring a hearty number of Kansas City artists and composers’ arrangements, the Heartland Men’s Chorus’s annual holiday extravaganza celebrated tradition and other cultures. Rich versions of classic Christmas gems “Gloria,” “Lo, How a Rose e’re Blooming,” and “I Saw Three Ships” set the tone with their expanding harmonies and wistfulness, as well as a dramatic version of “The Little Drummer Boy” which featured a tight five-person drumline. In addition to the Latin “Gloria,” the spirited African Kituba-dialect song “Noel” opened the show, with “Bashana Haba’ah” (“Next Year”) sung in Hebrew, which accompanied a touching on-stage scene of two fathers with their cute young daughters lighting a menorah. The men handled the non-English lyrics with excellent expression and diction, enunciating each phrase and syllable clearly in each piece.
Before intermission, the men sang local composer Jacob Narverud’s arrangement of three sections from Handel’s Messiah, a challenging feat with an appearance by sublime local soprano Sarah Tannehill Anderson. The chorus admirably rose to the challenge of this arrangement, tackling the fugal and melismatic nature of “For Unto Us a Child is Born” especially well.
An HMC concert would not be complete without a good dose of levity, and this first concert of its 29th season was no exception. “Pirate Song,” lead by soloist Michael L. De Voe, had the choir playing for laughs with the tune’s tongue-in-cheek lyrics (“For romance, find a pirate”), and guest drag queen stars were riotous as the “Christmas Tree Angel” (Genewa Stanwyck) and Elsa for a medley from Frozen (De De DeVille). “Christmas in the Cloister” opened the second half: an impish take on lengthy church announcements in plainsong, with a delightfully hammy performance as Cantor by Mark A. Lechner. Tannehill Anderson even joined the merriment with her jazzy, exaggerated solo on “Variations on Jingle Bells,” arranged by local composer Mark Hayes.
HMC also included a few token heart-tugging numbers, including its “Ad Astra” selection for this concert, a wordless, mostly instrumental “Stille Nacht.” You couldn’t help also thinking of your own loved ones passed away during this one, with the stage dimmed a deep blue hue and countless sparkling stars projected throughout the hall. “Thanksgiving Song” featured some spoken word in the form of inspiring social-media posts on myriad topics, from being cancer free to a successful adoption to celebrating equal marriage, and soloist Jason Taylor gave an R&B-tinged performance of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” HMC welcomed local indie-pop recording artist Dustin Rapier to sing the lead part for Brad Millison’s “Christmas in Kansas City,” complete with mentions of the Plaza lights and our beloved fountains, arranged by HMC’s new artistic director, Dustin Cates.
As expected from HMC, production value for “Kansas City Christmas” was high-quality and created a warm, inviting scene and festive mood through lighting, props, color schemes, costumes, confetti, and more. Choreography by Jerry Jay Cranford was lively and always enhanced the songs, especially on the animated “Chanukah in Santa Monica.” This show had more assisting musicians than usual, with a flutist, string quartet, guitar-bass-drum trio, and HMC’s own piano accompanist Lamar Sims. While the accompaniment in general was strong and laid a good foundation for the chorus, the string quartet struggled with intonation and confidence on the Messiah.
Dustin Cates is a welcome addition to the HMC family. He is personable and charming on stage (if a bit stiff this first concert), clearly challenges the singers, and has a vision for continuing and expanding the organization’s messaging and musical programming. One thing is certain—you can always count on HMC to present its own special twist on the usual holiday fare, honoring traditions and in a fresh, fun way this time of year.
Heartland Men’s Chorus
Kansas City Christmas
December 5–7, 2014 (Reviewed Friday, December 5)
300 W. 12th St., Kansas City, MO
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