Back With Bells On

Beloved seasonal play is staged in a safe format

Alfred Jackson sustains the magic through 2020.
Photo by Treadshots.com.

Responding to the COVID-19 crisis, all 41 Broadway theaters in midtown Manhattan closed on March 12. In May, Flat Rock Playhouse, the state theater of North Carolina, officially postponed its own season — an energetic lineup including the likes of Million Dollar Quartet, Steel Magnolias, and Helen on Wheels. 

Broadway will remain dark until May of next year — but nixing the annual A Flat Rock Playhouse Christmas just felt wrong to Artistic Associate Matthew Glover. A Hendersonville native and longtime Vagabond Player, Glover first produced the show in 2017. 

“It was such a success that it became a tradition,” says Glover, who got his start as Kurt Von Trapp in a 1998 Playhouse rendition of The Sound of Music. “We couldn’t lose our momentum this Christmas. We had to do something.”

And so, the show will go on, albeit virtually. This winter, playgoers can expect a prerecorded version of A Flat Rock Playhouse Christmas to be viewable online.  

“When you’re on stage and you make a mistake, it is what it is. On film, we had a chance to go back,” Glover says, revealing the key difference between live and prerecorded theater. “But I told the cast that I didn’t want it to be overproduced. I didn’t want it to be perfect.”

Challenge met, since directing a safe production with a 13-member professional cast presented plenty of logistical conundrums. Out-of-town actors — some hailing from hard-hit metropolises like New York City and Los Angeles — quarantined in onsite housing in early October. Glover did the same, sequestering himself for two weeks to monitor for symptoms and brainstorm the choreography for a touch-free, Rockette-style kick line with local Pat’s School of Dance. 

The solution? Record each dancer individually. Then, with the magic of editing by thespians CJ Barnwell and Maddie Franke, splice together a cohesive performance. The same approach was applied to choral renditions of “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” “White Christmas,” and “Carol of the Bells.” Deeming face-to-face meetings too risky, Glover and Chorus Coordinator Diane David organized two Zoom rehearsals with the Flat Rock Playhouse Chorus. Members were then recorded singing separately, their voices later married vis-à-vis editing.

The final product (about 90 minutes in total) also includes tapdancing in front of the Henderson County Historic Courthouse and an arrangement of “Jingle Bells” in which percussionist Paul Babelay plays the vibraphone, piano, drums, and upright bass. By splitting the screen in fourths and overlaying the audio from each recording, viewers can watch Babelay play his instruments simultaneously.

Of course, as with most holiday traditions in the world of COVID-19, A Flat Rock Playhouse Christmas will feel more, well, distanced. There will be no standing ovations or celebratory hugs. No intermissions or curtain calls. But Glover expects the spirit will be evident, no matter the format. 

“It will be different — you’ll miss the buzz of the audience leaving together,” he says. “But my hope is that people still feel the love.”

A Flat Rock Playhouse Christmas: A Virtual Production runs Monday, Nov. 30 through Sunday, Dec. 20. A viewing link can be purchased for $50. For more information, visit flatrockplayhouse.org/stream or call 828-693-0731.

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