The new name for the December music revue at Bristol Riverside Theatre may seem narrow at first. But, in the hands of veteran director Keith Baker, it’s a lot broader than it sounds.
“They’re songs that we, if we sat around a piano, we would know how to sing,” he explained. “Songs that are in our blood, in our ears, and in our memories.”
Well-known American Christmas songs and carols play a large part of this year’s American Christmas Songbook, which opens at the Riverside on Dec. 10. But the production also features songs from Puerto Rico or Germany and includes newer songs on their way to becoming standards.
That includes pieces like “Oh Joyous Children,” which was recently given higher visibility thanks to a version by Placido Domingo. “It’s a very developed and very beautiful song that can be sung by children or operatic,” said Baker.
He’s also keeping things fresh with contemporary takes on classic songs, with a usually solemn piece like “O Come O Come Emmanuel” recasted with the production’s lineup of bass, drums, keys, guitar and violin.
“That takes it out of being a straight-on Christmas church carol and transforms it into something else. It works very well, people enjoy that very much,” he noted.
This year’s lineup of singers includes Robert Farruggia and Laura Couples, both of whom have parts in next year’s production of Man of La Mancha. Also on the bill is Elyse Langley, who’s performed in the Riverside’s winter musical productions for the past five years, and veteran Philip Chaffin, who’s been involved with them for a decade and a half.
The roster is rounded out by theater regulars Sean Thompson, Dwayne Johnson and Jessica Gruver. And, this year, Cristina Lynn Farruggia makes her debut.
“They are eight absolutely phenomenal singers. It’s one of the best groups that I’ve had in years,” said Baker. “I just think the audience is going to find them charming and first rate and exciting.”
That’s partially what prompted Baker to change the show’s name from the long-running Winter Musicale moniker (there’s also a Summer Musicale at the Theatre) to American Christmas Songbook.
“I’ve called it the Winter Musicale, but that doesn’t say anything other than the time of year. We’re presenting a Christmas show, so why don’t I make that clear?” he explained.
The Riverside has already sold more tickets before opening night than all of last year’s run. Baker believes it’s because people have a better idea of what they’ll be hearing — even if there are some surprises along the way.
“We’re exploring new ways of presenting them that don’t just turn them into pop numbers: Finding a unique way to turn them so they sound fresh and have a feel maybe you weren’t expecting,” Baker explained, “But at the bottom of it is presenting a traditional Christmas.”
American Christmas Songbook will be performed at the Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe St. in Bristol, from Dec. 10 to 20. For information, visit www.brtstage.com.