Three cheers for The Phoenix Theatre Company! With a brilliant combination of planning, design and partnerships, the organization has successfully pushed past the barriers that have closed down much of the U.S., while adhering to ever-changing COVID-19 restrictions that have defined the year 2020.
UNWRAPPED is a holiday show that runs from December 2nd through December 23rd. This show is our first excursion into the new outdoor theatre experience that may well be the prevailing venue of pandemic-era America. In what can best be described as an outdoor concert venue, the uber-talented performers of UNWRAPPED play to an audience of socially-distanced patrons in paired Adirondack chairs situated along wide one-way aisles. No seat is a bad seat, as each pair is angled toward the stage and spaced far enough apart as to negate the undesired effect of too-large bobbing heads and too-loud private conversations.
And what a show it is! It starts with the 5-piece band, led by the energetic master-of-ceremonies, key-tar playing Mark Foreman. He and bandmates Toby Yatso (keys), Daniel “Cheesy” Johnson (guitar), Dan Stoltz (drums) and Alex Lee (bass) do the heavy lifting from beginning to end, playing an eclectic mix of holiday songs, from the classics of yesteryear (“The Little Drummer Boy”, “Happy Holidays”), to contemporary movie themes (“Let It Go”, “Do You Want To Build A Snowman” from Disney’s FROZEN).
Five talented artists comprise the ensemble of vocal performers. They include Alyssa Chiarello, Walter Belcher, Sam Primack, Alexandra Ncube, and Lynzee Forman. Each instills their own style, vocal range and personality into their performances, while complementing each other’s. The five vocalists take turns on solo and duet numbers while the lively dance choreography maintains a non-stop flow to the show. And, oh, the vocal range of these performers! Among the five of them, there is nothing beyond their reach. To say that Walter Belcher is the male version of Mariah Carey is nowhere near exaggeration. He, and they, are that good!
Interactivity is a recurring theme, as the audience is invited to sing along (with bouncing ball conveniently provided on a jumbo screen), and to take #youies — i.e. social media snapshots of each other to post on Facebook, Twitter, and the rest. A fun and inclusive atmosphere prevails, not only in the social interaction, but in the song selections. Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa are all covered, as are popular songs from holiday family films. While the tempo is generally upbeat and rocking, several ballads are interspersed for variety and to give the audience an opportunity to “shine their lights” by waving their smartphones in approval.
From a technical standpoint, the sound and light crew have successfully translated the controlled indoor atmosphere to a seamless outdoor experience. There were exactly zero technical glitches. The large screen video show complemented the musical numbers. Sound was clear and clean. You would think that we were sitting inside at the Main Stage, if not for the coats and blankets. Speaking of which…
We fully expected to be bundled up against the cold for this performance. While daytime temps were up in the 70s, nighttime lows were forecast to be down in the 40s. But here’s the thing: The coldest time of the night (– in Phoenix, at least –) is around 6AM the following morning. That’s because all the warmth of the day slowly continues to dissipate until just before the following day’s sunrise. Any savvy Phoenician will tell you that the cold comes gradually, over many hours. And so it was that at 7pm, we were probably looking at the 60-degree range with no wind and very little moisture in the air. The net result is a slight chill about the nose and feet, but otherwise, a cozy and relaxing evening with the family under the stars.
The Phoenix Theatre Company is the largest professional regional theatre company in Arizona. Its newly-constructed outdoor venue includes socially-distanced seating, hand sanitizer stations, and contactless food and beverage ordering. Masks are required. The venue is a clear demonstration of what can be done, through the ingenuity and perseverance of the arts and entertainment community, to address emerging and unexpected issues such as the coronavirus, in a conscientious and socially-responsible way. We look forward to future shows!