As digital photographs of international children — all of whom have benefitted from programs of ASTEP/Artists Striving to End Poverty — were displayed in a slide show against the plain white wall of a rehearsal room within Broadway's Foxwoods Theatre on Dec. 17, one could not help but think of the 20 children lost on Dec. 14 in Newtown, CT. The tone was set for a touching and poignant evening filled with holiday tunes and Broadway stars.
Upon arrival to Broadway's biggest house, concertgoers were directed to the Foxwoods stage door on 43rd Street, where they took an elevator four flights up and a set of stairs one flight down. On the third floor, patrons were greeted by an ASTEP volunteer, who welcomed them to Backstage for Christmas: A Holiday Cabaret.
Dogfight co-stars Lindsay Mendez and Derek Klena, dressed in shades of red and green, were among the first performers mingling in the rehearsal room, which had been dimly lit with white holiday lights and converted into a performance space: A grand piano and drum set were placed behind a proscenium that was made from a string of white lights, two red bows at the top and two bouquets of poinsettias at the bottom; a wreath hung in the background.
|photo by Monica Simoes|
As the "house lights" flickered, music director and orchestrator Mary-Mitchell Campbell, who is also the founder and executive director of ASTEP, made her way to the piano for an "overture" of the "Peanuts" theme song, and Broadway tenor Tituss Burgess took "center stage" for his performance of "Christmas Time is Here" from "A Charlie Brown Christmas." "We're here tonight mostly to focus on the work that ASTEP is doing for Hurricane Sandy relief in the New York tri-state area for those who have been devastated by that storm," said Campbell, the evening's host, following Burgess' performance.
She then introduced Mendez and Klena, who made their way to the front of the room for their gender-swapped performance of the Frank Loesser tune "Baby, It's Cold Outside." (As Klena pleaded to leave, Mendez comically sang the title lyric.)
Performances continued with "The Glee Project" contestant Ali Stroker, who is a wheelchair user and was assisted onto the stage by fellow "Glee Project" member Dani Shay, for a take on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"; Klena's rendition of Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You," with backup vocals provided by Mendez and Campbell; and an original song from Burgess (originally written for Nikki Renée Daniels) entitled "What I Want for Christmas" ("I never sang it [in public], so this can really suck," said Burgess with a laugh).
|Photo by Monica Simoes|
Golden Boy star Seth Numrich broke up the evening with a story about his involvement in the organization. "Mary-Mitchell asked me to come tonight, and she initially asked me to sing a song," said Numrich. "I said, 'That is a terrible idea!' … But I did want to come up and talk a little bit about ASTEP and what it means to me. It's a big part of my life." He shared an experience about volunteering as a camp counselor and teaching children about the power of protest and petition.
Tony-nominated Addams Family songwriter Andrew Lippa performed an original piece by Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich entitled "What a Little Faith Can Do," and he was followed by Julia Murney — star of Lippa's 2000 Off-Broadway musical The Wild Party — who praised Campbell's work ("In her spare time, she saves children around the world," said Murney. "In my spare time, I do Pilates!") and offered an offbeat version of "The 12 Days of Christmas" entitled "12 Days After Christmas."
"Our big focus this year, in the last few months, has been our own backyard, which has been — as you know — hurt pretty badly by Hurricane Sandy and all kinds of challenges here in the North East, as demonstrated by Friday's incident," said Campbell, who referred to the recent shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, towards the conclusion of the evening.
"Feed the World (Do They Know It's Christmas?)," performed by Tony-winning Next to Normal songwriter Tom Kitt, and "Home," a ballad from The Wiz performed by 14-year-old Olivia Hardy, were especially powerful.
Mendez closed the concert on a lighter note with Lynne Shankel's jazzy arrangement of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," which brought a smile to every face at the Foxwoods. (Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)