Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Make it a Cajun Christmas

Christmas came early to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center this year with the opening of Christmas Cabaret in the Jaeb Theater, which I saw in a preview.

Running through Dec. 18, this restaging of an annual holiday favorite spends the new first act celebrating the history and heritage of New Orleans. The songs include those you’d probably expect, but also a lovely “At the Edge of Lake Bijou” sung by Shelly Stephens – an unexpected pleasure.

As the images of Preservation Hall and Bourbon Street and Mardi Gras flash past on three overhead screens, we are left to wonder in Katrina’s aftermath, as the Narrator does, “What is a city? And can it be reborn?”

The second act moves into more familiar territory with a series of Christmas songs, divided relatively evenly between reverent and comic. The latter include “12 Pains of Christmas” and “Santa Brought Me Prozac.”

The surprises in the second act are the less well-known songs, “Mary, Did You Know,” sung here by Stephens, and (plucked from a Disney movie) “God Help the Outcasts,” by Kyle Prenger – all quiet, still gems in a frantic season. Yolonda Williams then takes "Joy to the World" to church.

To weave the acts into a holiday tapestry, Rick Criswell serves as the Spirit of Christmas and the Narrator. Other cast members include Alison Burns and Calvin Jones. Claude McNeal, the founder of the American Cabaret Theater in Indianapolis, directs.

- Michael K.

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