4 months of work for 3 nights of joy

How CFCArts Christ­mas ex­trav­a­ganza comes to­gether each year

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Matthew J. Palm

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.

Aug. 28

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.”

Sept. 9

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.”

Oct. 14

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.

Oct. 29

“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.”

Dec. 1

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.”

Dec. 8

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.

Dec. 9

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.”

Dec. 10

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!”

STEPHEN M. DOWELL/OR­LANDO SENTINEL

Dancers per­form dur­ing a re­hearsal Tues­day for the Christ­mas con­cert at North­land Church in Long­wood.

MATTHEW J. PALM/OR­LANDO SENTINEL

Netta Dar­roch greets a steady stream of singers at Grace Covenant Pres­by­te­rian Church in Or­lando as the fall choir sea­son kicks off in Septem­ber.

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