"Hold those bellies up."
Not the usual admonition given to teenage girls, perhaps, but it makes perfect sense when it's shouted by an instructor in a rehearsal room at the Baltimore School for the Arts. So, for that matter, does a reminder for those girls to double-check their beards.
All part of the preparation - and the illusion - that go into the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's ambitious Holiday Spectacular, which returns this week, complete with fancy sets, costumes and more than 100 performers, after a successful debut last year.
A surefire number in the show involves an ever-expanding, merriment-inducing, tap-dancing brigade of Santas, who bring down the Act 1 curtain. That Rockettes-like formation of 20 dancers (17 of them female) comes from the Baltimore School for the Arts - all disguised by ample padding around the middle and the regulation white facial hair.
"They just love doing this," says Norma Pera, head of the school's dance department. "It's something out of the mainstream. And it's such a good opportunity for dancers at that age to be in a totally professional show. It's like a Broadway production."
And it's one with a big-league production team.
Set designer Gregory Hill, for example, has a long list of television and film credits that includes work on Law & Order and The Devil Wears Prada. Amplification will be engineered by Randy Hansen, who
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does the sound design for Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York.
The stage director, David Levy, is a veteran of regional and off-Broadway theater. The costume designer is David Burdick from Baltimore's Center Stage.
At the artistic center of the enterprise is Jack Everly, the BSO's engaging and richly experienced principal pops conductor.
Everly holds the same post with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, which created the prototype of the BSO's Christmas show.
That prototype, called Yuletide Celebration, has been a cash camel for the Indianapolis Symphony for 21 years. It started with two performances of a relatively simple show in 1984, then grew steadily in scope and frequency - a dozen performances by 1987; 21 by 1990.
Everly has planned and conducted the Indianapolis event since 1994, putting a distinctive stamp on it through his top-drawer orchestrations and keen theatrical instincts, and generating still more demand for the product.
"We've been doing 28 performances a year for the past 10 years," says Ana Papakhian, director of communications at the Indianapolis Symphony. "We have 40,000-plus attendance and do $1.5 million in ticket sales - about a third of the orchestra's annual ticket revenue."
The BSO's inaugural Holiday Spectacular last year was performed only six times at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall but grossed nearly $450,000 and averaged 95 percent attendance.
Building a tradition
For 2006, the BSO will give nine performances and expects about $750,000 in sales. (As good as those numbers sound, the Spectacular isn't expected to turn a profit until its third year because of initial production costs.)
"Some cities have The Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol every year," says Dori Armor, the BSO's director of community programming. "Baltimore doesn't seem to have that. We wanted to build a holiday tradition here and do it in a way that makes the orchestra an integral part."
The BSO used to present as many as eight different holiday attractions, only some involving the orchestra, such as Handel's Messiah. "It was an insane month," Armor says. And not always a productive one. A couple of years ago, a Christmas show with Shirley Jones and Robert Goulet drew such mixed reactions that disgruntled patrons were given discount coupons for future events.
No wonder the idea of staging a BSO version of the Indianapolis Symphony's Yuletide Celebration began to look very attractive.
This year, 65 musicians of the BSO will be joined onstage by a chorus of 24, more than 30 student dancers, and the show's host and vocal soloist, multiple-Grammy winner Sandi Patty.
Not to mention Dan Menendez, known as the "piano juggler."
"The imagery that comes with that is frightening," Everly says, "but he doesn't actually juggle pianos. He does something special with his electric keyboard. I was blown away after seeing him on The Tonight Show."
Juggling all of these performers is a formidable task. "We have to turn a traditional symphony hall into a traditional proscenium theater," says Annie Applegarth, the BSO's director of operations. "Meyerhoff wasn't designed for flying scenery or curtains."
The makeover, which was to start at midnight last night, involves several improvements this year, including fly space and a concealed sound system.
"Last year, we put everything into the Meyerhoff in 36 hours," Armor says. "This year, we're feeling, like, `Wooooo, we've got breathing room' - we're going to do it in about 80 hours."
`Miracle on Cathedral'