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Lift every voice and sing - onstage

Nearly 40 local choral groups team with two theater companies for holiday shows

By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / November 13, 2009

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They’re packing up their glory and bringing it downtown.

The singers are young and old, of different creeds and colors and musical approaches, from suburban parishes and inner-city churches and college campuses.

Hundreds of singers in nearly 40 regional choirs and choruses will join two top local theater companies to lend their spirit and joy to holiday shows - perhaps an unprecedented array of community choral groups participating in such productions at the same time.

Starting tonight, the Huntington Theatre Company’s “A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration’’ uses spirituals, Civil War ballads, and carols in a tale evoking the spectrum of American life on Christmas Eve in 1864. Each night before the curtain, the audience will warm up to a set of Christmas music by one of dozens of local singing groups invited to participate for a night.

“We really wanted to wrap our arms around the city with this show,’’ says Huntington artistic director Peter DuBois.

Meanwhile in Cambridge, the American Repertory Theater’s “Best of Both Worlds,’’ which starts Nov. 21, transports the plot of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale’’ to the imaginary land of Funktopia, discarding the Bard’s language in favor of rhythm & blues and gospel and concluding with the rousing number “Glorious,’’ performed each night by the cast with the help of local gospel singers and groups.

“It’s a really great way for the community to be part of our celebration,’’ says “Best of Both Worlds’’ composer Diedre Murray. “Local people having the joy of making music together . . . that’s part of what being a musician is about.’’

The Huntington’s “Civil War’’ calendar lists more than 30 groups, from the Archdiocese of Boston Black Catholic Choir to Stambandet, a Scandinavian ensemble, and the Acton-Boxborough Regional High School’s Madrigal Singers, each appearing once. “The choirs really reflect the diversity of the city,’’ DuBois says.

For “Best of Both Worlds,’’ local groups including the Kingdom Sanctuary Choir from Mt. Olive Kingdom Builders Worship Center in Dorchester, the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College, the Tufts University Third Day Gospel Choir, and a north-suburbs group called the Choral Majority have been booked for about a week each, along with an ART chorus assembled by the show’s associate music director, David Coleman, a longtime figure on the local gospel scene. The groups join a cast of musical-theater and opera standouts including Gregg Baker (“Porgy and Bess’’ at New York’s Metropolitan Opera), Mary Bond Davis (Broadway’s “Hairspray’’) and Jeannette Bayardelle (Broadway’s “The Color Purple’’), who also originated her role as Serena in the 2004 New York production of “Best of Both Worlds.’’

“It’s about outreach,’’ says Coleman of the ART’s involvement with local groups. “It’s about [the theater] expanding its arms and its reach into the community and being more welcoming.’’

Choirs performed before a handful of “Civil War’’ performances during its world premiere production at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven last winter. But it’s a first for “Best of Both Worlds,’’ says ART artistic director Diane Paulus.

“So much of my interest at the ART is to make the theater a center for the commu nity, to make the theater feel like it belongs to the audience as much as to the artists, to make it a vibrant center of community, social life, intellectual debate,’’ Paulus says. “Everything I’ve programmed is a way to reach out. That’s been a big metaphor for me, that the ART is no longer just an institution within the four walls of the Loeb Drama Center. . . . Rather than saying, ‘Come to our theater, come see the show,’ [here] it was actually ‘Come be in the show,’ and if you’re in the show all of a sudden the show is yours.’’

“A Civil War Christmas’’ examines America in a time of slavery, civil war, and emancipation through interwoven story lines touching everyone from the Lincolns in the White House to a slave and her daughter trying to cross the Potomac to freedom. Cast members led by acclaimed local actors Ken Cheeseman, Karen MacDonald, and Jacqui Parker enrich the narrative by performing carols, folk songs, and other American music arranged by Daryl Waters. Jessica Thebus directs.

Pulitzer-winning playwright Paula Vogel (“How I Learned to Drive’’) says she wrote “Civil War’’ to reach even the youngest members of her multicultural, multiracial, multi-religious family, some of whom live in the Boston area. Bringing in the choruses was a natural extension.

“This is the hotbed - we’re walking the streets where abolitionists walked, we’re walking the streets where the Massachusetts 54th walked. It’s pretty exciting to do it here. So can we make it by, of, and for

the community?’’ Vogel says. “That meant reaching out . . . getting local choruses, school groups, choirs to sing for half an hour before the play begins.’’

In “Best of Both Worlds,’’ Shakespeare’s Hermione, Queen of Sicilia, becomes Serena, Queen of Funktopia, whose husband wrongly suspects her of bearing another man’s child. Banishment, heartbreak, and abandonment follow, and she is ultimately thought to die. The revelation that she is alive leads to forgiveness and a joyous finale as the choirs come onstage.

The show itself comes to life with the gospel and soul stylings of the 1950s and ’60s, says Murray, who wrote the score. The book and lyrics are by Randy Weiner, and the Tony-winning Paulus co-wrote and directs the show. Musically, that big finale touches on many different styles.

“Basically anything you want to do inside of gospel stylistically is OK, as long as you’re telling the truth and preaching the gospel,’’ Murray says. “So there’s elements of jazz, there’s marches, there’s reggaeton, there’s Latin and a straight-up fanfare that you might hear in a church.’’

With both shows, the choruses get a chance to share their voices - and their message - with new audiences. “We use music as a catalyst to create social change and break down barriers,’’ says Anthony Trecek-King, artistic director of the Boston Children’s Chorus, which will send about 25 youths to sing at the Huntington.

It’s also a chance to expose the theaters to new audiences. “The community choirs and especially the churches have never been to the ART and have never seen . . . a professional theater piece,’’ Coleman says.

Still, it’s the sharing that most participants look forward to. “The second part of our title is community, and that’s something we take quite literally,’’ says Richard Travers, music director of the Newton Community Chorus, which will sing Civil War-era pieces at the Huntington. “As Robert Shaw says . . . music is a consistent beacon of hope for the world. And I think that’s what we get out of it, to get a chance to take all different kinds of people from all different backgrounds and races and creeds and religions, and we all agree on the same thing. It’s pretty powerful.’’

A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS: An American Musical Celebration

At Huntington Theater Company, BU Theatre, tonight through Dec. 13. Tickets: $20-$82.50. 617-266-0800,

www.huntingtontheatre.org

BEST OF BOTH WORLDS

At American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, Nov. 21 through Jan. 3. Tickets: $25-$75. 617-547-8300,

www.AmericanRepertoryTheater.org

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