4 months of work for 3 nights of joy
How CFCArts Christmas extravaganza comes together each year
A festive Santa hat gaily atop her head and a smile beaming on her face, Netta Darroch is welcoming members of the Central Florida Community Arts choir to rehearsal.
“I love your hair,” she enthuses to one singer as she opens the door at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, one of the Orlando venues where the choir meets.
It’s 96 degrees and barely past Labor Day, but for CFCArts Christmastime is here.
Thousands of Central Floridians will attend the nonprofit’s ninth annual Christmas concert, which begins a threenight run Thursday at Northland Church in Longwood.
But for the hundreds of volunteers and staff members who make the show happen, they have months of work ahead of them — work that happens around full-time jobs and family commitments.
But it’s work that brings a smile to their faces — most of the time.
Here’s the story of how CFCArts’ “’Tis the Season: A Holiday Extravaganza!” comes to life.
CFCArts staff members gather in a small meeting room on the campus of another church, Central Christian on Ivanhoe Boulevard in Orlando. It’s where the organization, founded in 2010, has its headquarters.
It’s the first team planning meeting for “’Tis the Season” — but work on the show actually started even earlier. Show director Brandon Fender has already chosen music and organized the flow of the show, which will include the choir, soloists, an orchestra and dancers.
The conversation turns to inclusivity: How prominent should Jesus and the religious aspects of the holiday be?
“We don’t want to get away from telling the Christmas story, but we have to be hypersensitive to how we present it,” says executive director Joshua Vickery.
Other conversation focuses on the practical: “Do the choir risers have to look like a wall?” Vickery asks. Should they create some behind-the-scenes videos with the singers to play during the show? The consensus is yes. And there’s brainstorming.
“Can I throw out a crazy idea?” Vickery asks. He wonders about placing the orchestra behind the choir instead of in front.
“How will the orchestra feel being hidden behind a wall of people?” asks production manager Juan Torres.
The idea is shelved, and the meeting wraps up with a good sense of how the show will work — though all acknowledge there will be unexpected hiccups along the way.
“We never do anything last-minute,” Fender jokes. Adds Vickery: “You’d think since we’re meeting in August we wouldn’t have to.”
The first rehearsal of the choir is in full swing, and nearly 300 people are trilling, “We wish you the merriest, the merriest.”
When Vickery offers corrections, it’s with a smile: “Tenors and basses, that sure was a nice try,” he says after a rough patch. When the sopranos and altos start to over-sing: “Just keep truckin’ along, ladies. No need to be Norma Desmond” — the iconic “Sunset Boulevard” diva.
Choir administrator Loretta Fredrich passes out music, explains where restrooms are, and collects medical-liability waivers. But the biggest round of applause comes with the announcement that there will be three performances of the show this year, up from the usual two.
“We don’t want sold-out capacity,” Vickery says. “We want to bring in more people.”
A month has passed, and those singers brave enough to audition for solos are giving their all. Vickery and Fender are encouraging. “It’s nice to hear you sing!” Vickery says to one woman. Fender gives a thumbs-up to a male auditioner.
Choir members are downstairs rehearsing. Most have been practicing with recordings and their sheet music — at home, in the car, wherever and whenever they can fit in a few minutes to sing.
Behind closed doors, Vickery and Fender are debating who will sing the solos. They are excited that the extra performance means more singers could be given the opportunity to solo. It will take them awhile to decide.
“1 and 2 and 3 and 4,” sing-songs choreographer Eric Yow to the tune of “Dashing Through the Snow.” It’s two days before Halloween, and a dance studio in southwest Orlando is decorated with grinning skulls, creepy spiders and spooky eyes. Still, the singer on the recorded music exudes “It’s Christmas!” against the reality of trick-ortreating.
It’s only the second rehearsal, and several dancers are absent because they have to work. Yow is busy explaining the setup of the Northland Church stage and how it will differ from this rehearsal space.
They talk fast in dancer code: “Should I be in or out?” “Where do the littles go?” “Travel! Travel! Travel!” The dancers pick up the moves even faster.
Yow is making adjustments: “What’s happening with our palms?” and “I want to change those waltzy arms.”
“Come on, it’s Christmas!” the recorded singer bellows. Yow looks around at his crew, sweaty from high kicks: “Let’s try it from the top and hope that no one dies.”
With the show less than two weeks away, time is of the essence. At a rehearsal of the CFCArts Big Band, which provides pre-show music, director John Almeida won’t tolerate distractions. “I need these guys to pay attention,” he chides a visiting photographer.
Across the campus of Calvary Orlando in the gym, the orchestra is also rehearsing. A bare Christmas tree sits on the stage. Musicians have a tighter schedule than singers: A few of the selections are being practiced for the first time.
“We’re doing a little bit of sight reading tonight,” conductor Justin Muchoney says brightly, “but we’ll be ready in two weeks, I promise.”
Show week! The holiday season is finally here, but no one working on the show has time to celebrate.
“I put up my Christmas tree Nov. 1 because I knew it had to happen then or it wouldn’t happen all,” Fender says.
At a College Park coffee shop, key managers meet for an update. A lot of work has been done individually. Fender has expanded his original show-flow with names of soloists, microphone needs and more.
Torres has filled in the plan with more technical needs, such as when to cue the behind-the-scenes videos — which are behind schedule.
“I’m just worried about you getting them for the first time and not liking them,” Vickery says.
Fender explains he has seen the raw footage. “I’m not worried,” he says.
Less than an hour later comes sitzprobe — the first time singers and the orchestra rehearse together. It’s at Calvary Orlando, and Darroch is there, once again holding the door.
“You know you’re in the right place when you see me!” she exclaims.
Someone has added a few gold bows to the gym’s Christmas tree. The rehearsal goes well — “You can’t see into my mind and heart, but I’m giddy,” Vickery says — and a cheer goes up when he announces more than 5,000 tickets already have been sold.
Nine miles north, production manager Torres is supervising the assembly of choir risers on the Northland stage. It’s one of the services that is contracted out; “’Tis the Season” requires more work than can be handled by the CFCArts staff alone. Promotional postcards, created by a freelance graphic artist, have been mailed. A contracted costumer has been hunting down silver necklaces and white gloves. A freelance lighting designer has been given recordings of the songs so he can work his magic.
Around 9:30 p.m., orchestra production manager Melissa Brown shows up with a giant xylophone and metal chimes, folding chairs and music stands for orchestra members. With tape, Torres has marked where the musicians can fit. Will there be enough space? Room also needs to be reserved for singers who use wheelchairs.
There is counting, pacing off and a tense moment. Then, relief. All is well; everyone can be accommodated.
Behind Torres, workers finish attaching railings to the risers. The clock ticks toward 11.
The dancers experience the Northland stage for the first time; all but one or two having come from a full day of work. They are realizing how crowded the stage can be.
“It’s like Frogger,” Yow tells one dancer who has to artfully get from one end of the stage to the other. “There’s a window, you can make it.” The singer is still exhorting, “Come on, it’s Christmas!” The dancers start to move.
Meanwhile, costumer Tommy Price is cutting stray threads off tutus, sorting hair accessories and arranging garment racks. He’s responsible for the dancers’ roughly 150 costume pieces, some borrowed from Orlando Ballet and Walt Disney World. His sewing machine, in a plastic traveling case, is nearby — just in case.
Torres pulls in a wheeled suitcase, full of his “essentials” — spare batteries, duct tape and the like.
“We’re 110 percent volunteers,” he says, “but this is a professional atmosphere.”
Two days before opening night, singers, musicians and dancers rehearse together at Northland for the first time while the show’s technical elements are tried out. Snowflakes fall and stars twinkle on projections. Those delayed behind-the-scenes videos are played to good response.
Soloists find their spotlights. Sign-language interpreters’ fluid hands translate “peace,” “wonder,” “miracle.” Although there’s a dress rehearsal the following night, dancers test their costumes. Price is already planning adjustments: The men’s scarves are flopping around and need to be fastened to their coats.
Torres calmly walks everyone through number after number. Fender gives final notes; his work nearly done, he is already picking out songs for the spring concert.
All the advance planning has paid off; everything runs ahead of schedule. As they rehearse the bows, a familiar sound echoes through the venue — the joyful strains of “Come on, it’s Christmas…
our favorite holiday is here!”
Dancers perform during a rehearsal Tuesday for the Christmas concert at Northland Church in Longwood.
Netta Darroch greets a steady stream of singers at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Orlando as the fall choir season kicks off in September.