When The Times last spoke to veteran Bristol Riverside Theatre performer Demetria Joyce Bailey, it was the summer of 2020 and she was learning the ins and outs of technology as the annual Summer Music Fest went virtual.
But now, with COVID-19 vaccinations available and safety protocols in place, Bailey is thrilled to return to the stage at 120 Radcliffe St. for BRT’s first indoor, in-person concert since 2019.
The annual tradition An American Christmas Songbook runs through Dec. 19 and features carols and songs performed by Bailey and the familiar faces of Meredith Beck, Elyse Langley, Gary Lumpkin, Jon Reinhold, Dominick Sannelli, Michele Sexton and Keith Spencer.
They’re joined, as usual, by Keith Baker, former BRT artistic director who conceived the idea for An American Christmas Songbook. He leads the BRT Concert Band and plays piano. Band members include Rob Gargiullo on bass, Kathy Goff on percussion, Neil Nemetz on guitar and Claudia Pellegrini on violin.
According to Bailey, who in addition to 2020’s virtual shows also appeared in this year’s outdoor Summer Music Fest, held at a new amphitheater in Bristol Township, there’s nothing better than singing inside a theater.
“At dress rehearsal, it was such a tremendous thing to do certain songs within the theater because it’s a totally different sound when you think about it,” she said. “You have the anthem songs like ‘Christmas Hallelujah’ and when you have those songs going in a theater setting as opposed to outside where the sound goes out into the air and dissipates, it kind of hangs in the air and gives you that bit of a chill. It brings you right back to what live theater is all about.”
Bailey described the experience of reuniting with this group of artists as feeling like a homecoming.
“It was a homecoming because when you’re told at the beginning of the year, ‘Oh yeah, all of your jobs are now canceled,’ it’s like, ‘OK, now what do we do?’ You go through the aspects of videotaping and virtual and you really appreciate that live intimacy with an audience inside of a building, singing live songs with a live band and feeling that emotion in that very moment,” Bailey explained. “Then to do it in a Christmas musical is like the ultimate.”
Audiences can enjoy songs that, said Bailey, never grow old. The setlist includes “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Last Christmas.” For Bailey’s numbers, she’s excited to bring a jazz and blues flair.
As the performers belt out these timeless pieces, they’re surrounded by festive decorations designed by Andrew Deppen. They’re also decked out in holiday attire thanks to BRT resident costume designer Linda Bee Stockon.
While Bailey has worked with other bands and put on outdoor shows throughout the pandemic, An American Christmas Songbook is her first time back on an indoor theater stage.
“I wasn’t really pushing for a while only because me personally, I wasn’t quite sure of where this whole COVID thing was going, so I wasn’t really adamant on just jumping into normal. I work with a group of retired nuns and I didn’t want to bring anything to them,” she said. “But it’s so nice that you can go out and physically sit in a theater and be entertained.”
BRT co-producing director Ken Kaissar shared Bailey’s sentiment.
“One of the biggest blows to our audience during COVID was the fact that we couldn’t do our annual Christmas concert. It is one of our most beloved programs,” he said. “We got so many calls last year asking if we’ll be able to do An American Christmas Songbook. Keith Baker and our singers were heartbroken to disappoint the audience. Instead, they volunteered to come together and record a special concert, which they released on YouTube last December. So this year, they are so excited to be back in person and fill the audience with Christmas cheer in person. We’re all very excited.”
Bailey concluded, “We are so happy to be back for audiences. When we did the virtual, yeah, it was nice. But nothing beats a live audience. We are so glad to be back.”
Tickets for An American Christmas Songbook are $32 to $47, with discounts available for students and military. Audience members must show proof of vaccination (a photo or copy of your vaccination card is acceptable) with a matching ID, or a negative COVID-19 test (PCR or Antigen) taken within 48 hours of the performance start time. Masks are required. For tickets and health protocols, visit brtstage.org or call 215-785-0100.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com