Charming Charleston? Or some dive in New York? For their second annual holiday performance, What If? Productions wants you to feel like you've stepped into a boozy, candlelit bar in the Big Apple during their upcoming show, "Carol of the Belles," at the American College of the Building Arts. Three local vocal stars — Nakeisha Daniel, Becca Anderson, and Tiffany Gammell — will serenade the audience accompanied by only a piano in this intimate, cabaret-style performance. With soft lighting and minimal decor, What If? has set the stage for the vocals to hold the spotlight. "There's no frills. There's no light show with big costumes. It's just got a chill, elegant vibe," says Kyle Barnette, the company's founding artistic director. "When I think of cabaret, I think of a cool, off-the-beaten-path bar in New York City with dim lights and a piano. That's how this will feel. It's not singing and dancing. It focuses on the performers' voices more than anything else, and these three ladies are phenomenal."
In keeping with the company's dedication to the element of surprise, the show will feature an eclectic mix of tunes ranging from classic holiday favorites to unexpected genres given a Christmas-y twist. "We have some traditional Christmas songs, but there are some surprising pieces thrown in there too," says Barnette. "One song is by The Pointer Sisters, an early '80s R&B group that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with Christmas, but we're tying it into a Christmas theme. I think we have a Blondie song in there too. It's very unexpected. We try to be unpredictable."
The show will take place inside the American College of the Building Arts, a structure that was formerly the Old Charleston Trolley Barn. The industrial, exposed brick walls lend to the dive bar vibe the group is going for. This is a new venue for What If? as they continue to explore innovative spaces for future productions. They've been spreading awareness about their flexibility and willingness to perform in a variety of locales. The day before "Carol of the Belles" officially opens, they'll take the performance to Bishop Gadsden, a thriving retirement community on James Island. "We're expanding our musical offerings around town and making ourselves more mobile and accessible to new audiences and locations," says Barnette. "That's why we're excited to experience performing at the American College of Building Arts. It's an experiment for us because it's a new place for us to check out, so we'll see what we can do. They have these cool warehouse areas and a big open space that's right for performances. It's pretty spectacular." (And, bonus for the audience, there's free parking available!)
Carol of the Belles will be a more mature, cohesive production than the group's 2017 holiday performance, Holiday Mixtape. "That show ran in conjunction with another December show, so that was a bit of a challenge. We didn't get to focus as tightly on it as we wanted. It was called Mixtape for a reason because it was a big mixture of things," says Barnette. "This year has more of a grown up, fun, intimate feel. And the most important thing is the focus on three voices. It will be quite special."
Becca Anderson, who has worked with What If? for years, says she's been itching to perform with Daniel and Gammel for a while. The three vocalists met through their artistic circles and quickly developed a friendship. "Since I met Tiffany and Nakeisha maybe about three years ago, I've been dying to do a performance with them. I've been dropping hints to Kyle for at least a year about it," she laughs. "We've worked for some of the same companies but not together. I love them. They're incredibly talented and accomplished. I feel really lucky to be performing with them. Cabaret settings are their strong suit, so I think it's going to turn out really great."
Anderson has won the City Paper's award for best actress multiple times and is described by Barnette as "a powerhouse vocalist." Daniel has been performing for over 15 years and just underwent an intensive study on cabaret and piano bar style this summer. And Gammell, who works in the music department at College of Charleston, regularly does her own cabaret-esque, one-on-one appearances around town. "All three of them have different individual strengths, and I think their voices blend really well together," says Barnette. "You're not going to find anything else like this in Charleston over Christmas."
And it wouldn't be cabaret without drinks to warm your wintry bones. Rusty Bull Brewing Co. will be there with some holiday brews, and those who book a premium VIP table will receive a bottle of Champagne.
You can catch Carol of the Belles on December 20, 21 & 22 at 7:30pm. Tickets are available at whatifproductions.org.