West Side Story Is Fantastic at Orlando Shakes

WINTER PARK — Imagine you get invited to a holiday party being thrown by four friends who happen to be marvelous singers. In addition to drinks while gathering around their Christmas tree, they have another idea for how to spread some holiday cheer. They invite you to sit down and relax as they perform traditional Christmas songs such as “Winter Wonderland,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” and “Hark The Herald Angels Sings.”

In a bit of a twist, those holiday perennials have a bit of a pop-Jazz feel that proves irresistible. They got the idea, our performers note, from their enduring love for one of the most popular singers of our era, Tony Bennett. So, in addition to those familiar Christmas songs, they also pay tribute to the pop standards that Bennett made so famous.

If that sounds like an enjoyable party, the good news is you don’t even have to wait for four singer friends to organize it. That work has already been done by the Winter Park Playhouse, Winter Park’s professional musical theatre, which is closing out the year with their new holiday show, A Swingin’ Christmas: The Holiday Music of Tony Bennett, designed to bring lovers of Christmas standards and Tony Bennett’s familiar pop-Jazz hits together under one roof.

What is A Swingin’ Christmas?

Now playing through Dec. 16, the show that opened on Friday was created by Todd Olson and David Grapes, who also directed the original production. The concept is simple: two men and two women gather at a home with a brightly lit Christmas tree, nutcrackers on the fireplace, a warm fire in there, and a glimpse of snow falling outside their window.

Over drinks, they take us through the career of Tony Bennett, who began singing at age 10 and was steadily turning out the hits in the 1950s and 1960s. His career hit a slump as the rock era hit its stride, although Bennett would make a stunning comeback starting in the 1990s, as a new and younger generation discovered his unmistakable singing voice and began reveling in his legendary duets with the likes of Phil Collins, K.D. Lang and Lady Gaga. Bennett was the grand master of smooth Jazzy pop hits.

The show captures that spirit as our singers perform his standards such as “Fly Me To The Moon,” “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams,””The Best Is Yet To Come” and “Make Someone Happy.” If you’re a Tony Bennett fan, you should love this show. But keep it mind, this is also a holiday show — the holidays, Tony-style.

How is the Winter Park Playhouse’s Production?

Under the direction and choreography by Tay Anderson, the show reunites four Playhouse regulars: Mahalia Gronigan, Bert Rodriguez, Russell Stephens, and Monica Titus, who all have uniquely different vocal ranges and styles that help them capture both the warm and fuzzy nostalgia of those Christmas classics and the enduring appeal of Bennett’s very upbeat music. All four singers bring plenty of charm and humor to this production.

A word of praise also to the music provided by the Playhouse’s music director, Christopher Leavy, who performs piano as Ned Wilkinson accompanies him on bass and Sam Forrest on percussion. This show is a testament to the Playhouse’s high standards of professionalism, and it’s just a plain old fun holiday show.

Where Can I See A Swingin’ Christmas?

A Swingin’ Christmas: The Holiday Music Of Tony Bennett is being produced at The Winter Park Playhouse, 711 Orange Ave. in Winter Park, now through Dec. 16.

Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Friday and Saturday matinee performances at 2 p.m. and select Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. 

Ticket prices are $46 for evening shows, $43 for seniors during evening shows, $39 for matinees, and $20 for students and theatrical industry professionals. Group discount rates for 10 people or more are available. Student rush “$10@10” offers $10 tickets (for students ages 15 to 25 years) will be solde 10 minutes prior to a performance when seats are available.

To purchase tickets, call the box office at 407-645-0145 or visit online at  www.winterparkplayhouse.org  

Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright, and author of the book A Christmas Eve Story. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.

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