A professorial-looking man in his fifties, lanky, with horn-rimmed glasses and a chequered shirt, flaps his arms like a bird, right on cue. He and eleven other audience members have been coaxed onstage for a Christmas Carol. They’ve been conditioned to perform an action for each of the twelve days of Christmas. As we sing “Four calling birds” again, he flutters his arms over-enthusiastically. He’s a good sport. The audience laughs.
Comprising nostalgic carols and well-choreographed dancing, the 2018 Christmas Proms was held at the Adelaide Festival Centre. Unlike the many free carolling nights around Adelaide, there’s an admission fee. But it’s a price that pays for big names and carols guaranteed to be decent, played as well as they are by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.
The show’s performers are instantly likeable. The smooth Guy Noble, who conducted the ASO, made the audience laugh more than once, referring to a dancer’s elf as a Christmas Dobby. Meanwhile the glamorous Lucy Durack beamed onstage and her powerful voice, though sometimes tinged with an American accent in song, produced the kind of melodious tones expected from a star of musicals such as Wicked. Sean Mulligan and Jan DiPietro added both energy and humour, tap-dancing playfully in routines that could have belonged to Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. At times they danced with Mietta Brookman, a cute, endearing young ballerina, who won the hearts of the audience starring in Tchaikovsky’s ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ and a duet with the big man himself, Santa.
There were three kinds of audience member: the octogenarian, who heartily took part with his or her well-exercised vocal pipes; the child, generally aged under 10, who was excited; and its parents who appeared to find relief in surrendering their jobs as entertainers for the night. People aged in their 20s were nowhere to be seen, or else keeping very quiet – especially when being encouraged to join in singing.
The ASO’s B-Team provided steady service for each carol. According to the programme notes, many of the section leaders were acting principals, with presumably the A-team down the road at Elder Hall, performing Handel’s Messiah. Still, it was an orchestra that could handle carols with its eyes closed. In Prokofiev’s ‘Troika’ from his Lieutenant Kijé suite, however, the orchestra sounded hollow and might have benefited from richer brass and strings sections to achieve the depth required for a Russian composition.
There were also a handful of small problems. The lyrics for Deck The Halls, which usually appeared on a screen above the stage, were absent for the second half of the carol. Meanwhile the programme notes, though published in a glossy pamphlet, contained a number of errors, including a misspelling of Prokofiev’s suite on the front cover. In addition, it was strange to see the second double bass player exit the stage many times, only to re-enter on the other side to play the keyboard. One wonders why; surely Adelaide does not lack pianists.
The show’s finale was entertaining enough to make one overlook any faux pas on the night. The “Twelve Nights of Christmas” truly stood out. Earlier pieces had been more expertly performed, more gracefully spun out. Instead, it created the kind of pleasure one feels when a group of slightly bewildered people find themselves doing something ridiculous, most of the time unsure what’s happening, yet continue to try spiritedly. It possessed a kind of beauty in chaos and in the fact that some of those onstage had no idea what they were doing, instead smiling to let their false teeth show, or understood well and took up the job of, say, flapping their arms with gusto. This human side gave to the Proms the most desired Christmas emotion: joy.
The night succeeded in what it was designed to be: a formula of nostalgic carols and popular songs performed by well-loved Australian personalities. And in the most heart-warming gesture of the night, the twelve geeks of Christmas ensured that the audience left with smiles on their faces.
3 / 5 stars
Christmas Proms showed at the Adelaide Festival Theatre on 14 and 15 December 2018.
– Kate Andrinopoulos and Daniel McLean