Theater review: Virtual show satisfies those who need a little Christmas

For “Songs of the Season,” the Duluth Playhouse’s virtual holiday show this year,“ the best seat in the house is on your couch!”

Christina Stroup dons reindeer antlers for a comical performance during the Duluth Playhouse's "Songs of the Season" on Thursday evening. (News Tribune screen shot)

Every holiday season, the Playhouse traditionally presents a big, colorful blockbuster musical with sold-out audiences of folks dressed up in their best “out on the town” finery. This year, however, a virtual small concert was the safest choice for both performers and audiences.

For “Songs of the Season,” NorShor Artistic Director Phillip Fazio gathered four beloved area vocalists: Carolyn LePine, Shad Olsen, Gabe Mayfield and Christina Stroup, for an evening of holiday favorites. Each had their solo moments to shine, and they came together as a powerful quartet.

Some of the song lyrics hit home especially hard this year and seemed curated to have the performers sing of the many emotions of our bleak winter. There were, however, also many upbeat, up-tempo pieces to bring a smile.

Lepine’s sweet spot came with “Grown Up Christmas List.” Her always crystal clear soprano voice shared this season’s sadness with lyrics such as “My grown up Christmas list/Not for myself but for a world in need/But Heaven only knows/That packages and bows/Can never heal a heartached human soul.” She also performed a particularly haunting and beautiful version of “Silent Night.”

With “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch,” Mayfield had great fun dancing and stealing a package from under the stage tree. His strongest vocal moments came in “Christmas Song” with his crooner’s style singing of “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.”


The always enjoyable and fun to watch Olsen sold his up-tempo piece, “Run, Run Rudolph,” where he also cut a few moves. “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” was Olson’s ironic lament for this season, when so many will only be home with loved ones “in their dreams.” Olson never fails to deliver memorable performances with his luscious tenor stylings.

No one belts like Stroup, and she was in her element for the whole concert whether with her breakneck, comic “Jingle Bells” or the Mariah Carey no-holds-barred holiday staple “All I Want For Christmas is You.” She can hold an audience even in an online concert with an ease in her every gesture and movement and star-level vocals that are Broadway ready.

“My Favorite Things” and their finale, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” were two of the full quartet’s strongest group numbers.

Andy Kust, music director and pianist, is now the music director at the Chanhassen, after working as music director for many UMD and Playhouse productions. A small combo was a solid musical accompaniment for the singers with bass player Gregg Ciurleo and percussionist Kurt Savela.

Fazio wrote in the online Playbill that he hoped the virtual concert would bring audiences some “tidings of comfort and joy.” With small family in-house groups tending the home fires, an evening listening to these talented performers, while enjoying a glass of wine, a cup of Tom and Jerry or hot chocolate, is just what “Songs of the Season” provides.

If you “go”

What: Virtual Concert “Songs of the Season”
Where: Playhouse’s YouTube channel
When: Available for unlimited streaming now through January 3
Tickets: Access information provided at by giving a donation to the playhouse in any amount.

Sheryl Jensen is a former teacher, magazine editor and director. She reviews theater for the News Tribune.

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