Each year, the City Paper publishes guides to various holiday-themed productions around Charleston. Some are not so much Christmas shows as they are scathing satires or broad comedic takes on the season and the people who love it.
But let it be known that The Charleston Christmas Special 2019, which opens at the Charleston Music Hall this Friday, is not that kind of show. It's an old-school song-and-sketch-packed variety-show-style extravaganza for the whole family, similar to the kind you used to see back in the '70s from pros like Andy Williams.
And that's exactly how the producer/performer team of Brad and Jennifer Moranz planned it: An irony-free, first-class evening of expertly delivered Christmas tunes and comedy sketches, presented by a group of remarkably talented performers.
"To me, the most amazing thing about the show is the cast," Brad Moranz says. "It's a level of talent all in one place that you don't see very often, even if you go to a Broadway show. We've got a guy (Nathaniel Hackman) who's been in Les Misérables on Broadway. We've got another guy (Matthew Billman) who sings exactly like Josh Groban, who's been touring the country with Jersey Tenors. We've got a girl (Lakieta Bagwell-Graves) who sounds like Celine Dion who's been a featured singer in the Smoky Mountain Opry in Pigeon Forge."
- Courtesy of The Charleston Christmas Special
- The performers in the Charleston Christmas Special are highly talented
As for the material, Moranz says the songbook for The Charleston Christmas Special is perhaps more wide-ranging than one might expect.
"The reason why the show has such a broad appeal, and why about 10,000 people see it each year is that that it covers so many styles," he says. "We'll have a country Christmas song in there, and then all of a sudden will have a big band swing number, and then we'll have some of the Gaither Vocal band's quartet stuff. It's just crazy."
Planning out The Christmas Special is a year-round process for Moranz Entertainment, even when they've got other shows going on. In fact, the 2020 version of the show will be built while Brad and Jennifer are producing a Gershwin-themed production and a classic-rock show next spring and summer.
"We're always looking for new things," Moranz says. "We spend all year literally listening to every single thing that has come out in terms of who's recording Christmas songs, whether it's Brett Eldredge recording a Christmas album or Trisha Yearwood or Michael Bublé or Josh Groban. And then we just try to pick the best of all those songs and mix them with the right person who can do them the best and really make them come alive. We have to cast the show pretty much a year in advance in order to be able to research material and then to be able to assemble it in any logical fashion."
Assembling the show in a linear way is perhaps the biggest challenge that Brad and Jennifer face every year, simply because there's no real direct narrative in the show, and both the cast members and song list are fluid.
"In the absence of a storyline that creates a through line to a dramatic form," Moranz says, "you end up creating your own sense of motion for how one thing leads to another. Otherwise, the form of a variety show can seem haphazard and erratic, and it's very important to Jenny and me that it doesn't feel that way. It should feel as if it flows; as if you're literally telling a story even in the absence of a story."
- Courtesy of The Charleston Christmas Special
- 10,000 people see the Christmas special at the Music Hall each year
And as if it weren't enough of a challenge to produce, cast, and choreograph an all-out Christmas extravaganza, both Brad and Jennifer are part of the cast, hitting the stage for sketches and dance numbers while running the show.
"The greatest challenge is being two places at once," Moranz laughs. "We're watching, making sure that everything is happening and coming together the way we imagined it, and then all of a sudden we're putting ourselves into it, and in that moment, we have to forget about the other part. We have to forget about being the director or the choreographer. We have to immerse ourselves as performers because that's where the fun is. We all have the ability to just get lost and have a great time. "
And if, at some point during The Charleston Christmas Special's 11-show run, one of them forgets a line, that's just part of the magic.
"There have been times when we have felt under-rehearsed ourselves personally," Moranz says, "but it's not unlike the style of Tim Conway and Harvey Korman when they used to fall apart on The Carol Burnett Show and get the giggles and cut up. If it's not perfect, that's kind of the way Jenny and I are. And the audience allows us to have that freedom; they actually enjoy us falling apart and not necessarily being line-perfect. Every performance is its own thing and its own kind of fun. And I love it."