"Hold those bellies up."
Not the usual admonition given to teenage girls, perhaps, but it makes perfect sense when it's shouted by an instructor in a rehearsal room at the Baltimore School for the Arts. So, for that matter, does a reminder for those girls to double-check their beards.
All part of the preparation - and the illusion - that go into the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's ambitious Holiday Spectacular, which returns this week, complete with fancy sets, costumes and more than 100 performers, after a successful debut last year.
A surefire number in the show involves an ever-expanding, merriment-inducing, tap-dancing brigade of Santas, who bring down the Act 1 curtain. That Rockettes-like formation of 20 dancers (17 of them female) comes from the Baltimore School for the Arts - all disguised by ample padding around the middle and the regulation white facial hair.
"They just love doing this," says Norma Pera, head of the school's dance department. "It's something out of the mainstream. And it's such a good opportunity for dancers at that age to be in a totally professional show. It's like a Broadway production."
And it's one with a big-league production team.
Set designer Gregory Hill, for example, has a long list of television and film credits that includes work on Law & Order and The Devil Wears Prada. Amplification will be engineered by Randy Hansen, who
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does the sound design for Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York.
The stage director, David Levy, is a veteran of regional and off-Broadway theater. The costume designer is David Burdick from Baltimore's Center Stage.
At the artistic center of the enterprise is Jack Everly, the BSO's engaging and richly experienced principal pops conductor.
Everly holds the same post with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, which created the prototype of the BSO's Christmas show.
That prototype, called Yuletide Celebration, has been a cash camel for the Indianapolis Symphony for 21 years. It started with two performances of a relatively simple show in 1984, then grew steadily in scope and frequency - a dozen performances by 1987; 21 by 1990.
Everly has planned and conducted the Indianapolis event since 1994, putting a distinctive stamp on it through his top-drawer orchestrations and keen theatrical instincts, and generating still more demand for the product.
"We've been doing 28 performances a year for the past 10 years," says Ana Papakhian, director of communications at the Indianapolis Symphony. "We have 40,000-plus attendance and do $1.5 million in ticket sales - about a third of the orchestra's annual ticket revenue."
The BSO's inaugural Holiday Spectacular last year was performed only six times at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall but grossed nearly $450,000 and averaged 95 percent attendance.
Building a tradition
For 2006, the BSO will give nine performances and expects about $750,000 in sales. (As good as those numbers sound, the Spectacular isn't expected to turn a profit until its third year because of initial production costs.)
"Some cities have The Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol every year," says Dori Armor, the BSO's director of community programming. "Baltimore doesn't seem to have that. We wanted to build a holiday tradition here and do it in a way that makes the orchestra an integral part."
The BSO used to present as many as eight different holiday attractions, only some involving the orchestra, such as Handel's Messiah. "It was an insane month," Armor says. And not always a productive one. A couple of years ago, a Christmas show with Shirley Jones and Robert Goulet drew such mixed reactions that disgruntled patrons were given discount coupons for future events.
No wonder the idea of staging a BSO version of the Indianapolis Symphony's Yuletide Celebration began to look very attractive.
This year, 65 musicians of the BSO will be joined onstage by a chorus of 24, more than 30 student dancers, and the show's host and vocal soloist, multiple-Grammy winner Sandi Patty.
Not to mention Dan Menendez, known as the "piano juggler."
"The imagery that comes with that is frightening," Everly says, "but he doesn't actually juggle pianos. He does something special with his electric keyboard. I was blown away after seeing him on The Tonight Show."
Juggling all of these performers is a formidable task. "We have to turn a traditional symphony hall into a traditional proscenium theater," says Annie Applegarth, the BSO's director of operations. "Meyerhoff wasn't designed for flying scenery or curtains."
The makeover, which was to start at midnight last night, involves several improvements this year, including fly space and a concealed sound system.
"Last year, we put everything into the Meyerhoff in 36 hours," Armor says. "This year, we're feeling, like, 'Wooooo, we've got breathing room' - we're going to do it in about 80 hours."
'Miracle on Cathedral'
Few hitches, all minor, occurred during last year's run of the show. A dancer's shoe sailed into the audience one night. On another occasion, a curtain got stuck during the dancing Santas number. "Those kids just kept tap, tap tapping for three extra minutes until it was fixed," Applegarth says. "They were pros."
"The show has been advertised as 'Miracle on Cathedral Street,'" Armor says, referring to the Meyerhoff's address. "And it really was a miracle last year. It came off so smoothly."
Everly credits "a marvelous production crew" at the Meyerhoff - enlarged this year by technicians from the Lyric Opera House - with helping the Spectacular live up to its billing.
The scenery, constructed by the Baltimore Opera Company, includes two 40-foot nutcrackers that will flank the stage and a "Santatizer" set for a scene where jolly old Nick explains to his elves how he can get to so many destinations in one night.
"We will probably use the set for the next six or seven years, so it was important that we got it right," Armor says.
Special effects have been beefed up. "Last year, we used the standard confetti snow. This year, we're using a new bubble mixture - we're going for zero visibility," Applegarth says with a laugh.
Plans for this year's show started being made shortly after last year's closed. Scenic designs were finished by July. In September, Armor scoured wholesale costume and fabric shops in New York. Last week, she was shopping at a wig shop on Baltimore's Lexington Street to find the hair for an Andrews Sisters-like bit in the show.
For weeks, boxes have been piling up along the walls and halls of the Meyerhoff's administrative wing. Inside are such things as two dozen gold-colored elf shoes that will be matched up to dancers who have faxed tracings of their feet to Armor.
Getting all of the forces into the theatrical swing of things is stage director David Levy, a self-described "holiday pro" who has directed the Yuletide Celebration in Indianapolis for a decade.
"When people ask me what I do, I tell them it's sort of like Radio City Music Hall, only with a symphony orchestra - and classy," Levy says.
He and Everly have hit upon a formula that enhances the expected seasonal concert format with what Levy calls "mini-production numbers."
Three of them will be new to audiences here this year: a re-creation of a 1940s Christmas Eve radio broadcast from a Baltimore radio show; an extensive exploration of "Jingle Bells"; and "Be a Santa," the "Santatizer" scene.
"It's not the same old show every year," Everly says. "We are always thinking about how we can keep the audience's interest up."
New stuff will typically be tried out first in Indianapolis and then incorporated into the Baltimore show the next year. But the Meyerhoff show is not really borrowed goods from the Midwest.
"It's homegrown," Everly says. Adds Levy: "When it's a local production - and I mean local in the best sense of the word - it can be a source of great pride."
Last year, almost all of the nonorchestral participants were from the area. "I was very thrilled we had such a great talent pool in Baltimore," Levy says.
This year, a combination of local and outside singers will be used in the chorus - "quite a few graduates of Peabody, one from Morgan State and some New York City, Broadway-ish singer-dancer types," Armor says.
And, once again, the Baltimore School for the Arts dancers will get plenty of stage time. A version of "Carol of the Bells" choreographed by Keith Lamelle Thomas, a graduate of the school, "was so exquisite last year that I had to bring it back," Everly says.
(One thing that won't return is a Hanukkah suite. "We're not kidding anyone," Armor says. "We're a Christmas show.")
Two other items from last year's show will be reprised: a production number of " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas" (with a newly built hearth prop) and, of course, the tap-dancing, high-kicking Santas. Those two things will probably be held over ad infinitum; they have long been on the do-not-cut list in Indianapolis, too.
It's easy to understand how the Santas became a staple; you'd have to be severely Scrooged not to get at least a good smile from it. (The BSO marketing department has posted a clip of last year's Santa line on YouTube.)
The School for the Arts was a natural place to seek performers for the Santa choreography by Jennifer Ladner, except that the school doesn't teach tap.
"When I heard they wanted tap dancers, I thought, 'I only do ballet,'" says Christina Jackson, making a mock artsy face. "But then, I thought, 'OK, I'll try it.' It was so much fun. And it was great getting a standing ovation every night."
Jackson will be reprising her Santa this year. Among those tapping into the fray for the first time is Babette McGeady, who "heard everyone talking about it, and the funny stories they had from last year. I had never done tap before," she says, "but it wasn't too complicated."
Other than coping with the costumes ("It gets very hot," says Alicia Williams), the teenage Santas have only a couple of worries: "Making sure your belly isn't falling," Jackson says, "and your boots don't come off."
For all of the song and dance, the Holiday Spectacular is still very much a BSO show, propelled by live, orchestral music.
This year, Everly has arranged Vaughan Williams' much-loved Fantasia on "Greensleeves" as a showcase for concertmaster Jonathan Carney, who will participate in all nine performances.
"Last year, I played some of the performances and went to some of them, taking friends and children," Carney says. "I enjoyed it from both sides."
A two-hour production of Christmas music may not be every classically trained musician's dream, but the BSO is looking forward to this year's extravaganza, Carney says. "Jack puts such a quality stamp on everything he does. That's the key.
"An orchestra enjoys doing anything that has quality to it," the concertmaster says. "It has been so depressing to look out and see small audiences for some of our classical concerts, so it's going to be great to play for packed houses."
Everly, who will turn over the Indianapolis show to another conductor this week, will be on the podium for all nine Baltimore performances.
"I'm one of the few conductors who never tired of doing 35 Nutcrackers in a row [as music director of American Ballet Theatre for 14 years]," Everly says. "I really do love all the music of the season. And I'm glad I do. Otherwise, I'd probably be at Betty Ford's by now."