On Stage: Cirque Dreams Holidaze comes to Philly

By Denny Dyroff, Entertainment Editor, The Times

Cirque Dreams Holidaze

Chester County will be in the house – and on the stage — when the Kimmel Cultural Campus and The Shubert Organization present “Cirque Dreams Holidaze,” a brilliant and whimsical holiday spectacular at the Campus’ Miller Theater (230 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, www.kimmelculturalcampus.org), from December 26-31.

As a highly acclaimed family holiday tradition, “Cirque Dreams Holidaze” conveys the magic of the season with a Broadway-style production infused with contemporary circus arts, storybook characters, and holiday music favorites.

The talented company will feature two artists from the Delaware Valley including one from Chester County, aerialist/dancer Ashley Zimmerman. The other is Tiago Raul, a native of Puerto Rico who was raised in Philadelphia.

Zimmerman, a native of Berwyn, started her career as a professional dancer, but switched her focus from dance to circus arts. She began teaching herself trapeze and other aerial disciplines during the pandemic, and now specializes in dance trapeze and aerial hoop. She has been performing as an aerialist now for more than one year.

Zimmerman is a Conestoga High School alumna who started ballet lessons when she was four. After high school, she attended Point Park University under the direction of Ruben Graciani and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in dance, having studied jazz, modern, tap and contemporary.

While at university, she had the pleasure of working with choreographers Luke Murphy, Randy Duncan, and Doug Bentz, as well as performing works such as José Limón’s “A Choreographic Offering (Excerpts),” David Parson’s “Wolfgang,” and Ronen Koresh’s “Standing in Tears.”

Since moving to New York, Zimmerman has participated in several dance related projects, and has performed works for choreographers Megan Bascom, Shawn T. Bible, Álvaro González, Samsam Young, Pilar Castro Kiltz, Brian Pelletier, Nicole Jones, Christina D’Arrgio, and Holly Heidt.

Additionally, Zimmerman has performed with Virgin Voyages since 2022 in productions such as “Persephone,” “Lola’s Library,” and “It’s a Ship Show!”. She specializes in dance trapeze and aerial hoop. Zimmerman has also performed aerial straps and hammock.

In this production, she goes up to the highest heights and performs a different kind of dance while holding on to a single bar.

“Cirque Dreams Holidaze” features an entertaining blend of circus acts, vocalists, dancers and aerialists.

“This Broadway-style production, with musical theater, dancing, acrobatic feats, and favorite holiday songs, is an outing guaranteed to foster joy this season,” said Frances Egler, Vice President of Theatrical Programming and Presentations on the Kimmel Cultural Campus.

“Part of our 2023-24 Family Discovery Series, we hope this event inspires our littlest guests (and adults, as well) with the transformative power of the arts.”

As lights dim and the music swells, a fantastical cast of holiday storybook characters come to life. Imaginative and fun for children, seniors, and everyone in between, “Cirque Dreams Holidaze” features a world-renowned cast of performers accompanied by an ensemble of aerial circus acts, sleight-of-hand jugglers, fun-loving skippers, breath-catching acrobatics, and much more.

An original music score includes new twists on seasonal favorites such as “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “Carol of the Bells.” Singers, dancers, penguins, toy soldiers, and reindeer invoke the dreams behind a child’s eye on the most magical of nights.

Cirque Dreams is part of the Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group.

Video link for “Cirque Dreams Holidaze” – https://youtu.be/0ca-cYxZkVY.

“Cirque Dreams Holidaze” will run from December 26-31 at the Miller Theater.

Ticket prices start at $45.

Jamey’s House of Music (32 South Lansdowne Avenue, Lansdowne, 215-477-9985,www.jameyshouseofmusic.com) is a place to go if you’re looking for top-flight live music along with a menu featuring culinary excellence.

The club’s kitchen, which is the is the inspired work of Jamey’s wife, Suyun, offers an eclectic and delicious made-to-order menu of Asian-inspired American fare – including many vegetarian options — along with yummy desserts, fresh brewed coffees from Green Street Coffee Roasters, assorted espressos, and cold drinks.

The main draw at Jamey’s, however, is the music. In a normal week, the venue features four shows – Jazz at Jamey’s on Thursdays, concerts of Friday and Saturday nights, and the Sunday Blues and Brunch Jam.

This weekend, because of Christmas Eve and other assorted distractions, there will be only one event at Jamey’s – and it’s a good one.

On December 22, the venue will host a return engagement by Lisa Chavous, who is one of the most respected jazz and blues singers in the Philadelphia music scene.

Jamey’s will present “Lisa Chavous – A Motown Christmas.”

The Budesa Brothers will be joining Chavous and Friends this Friday for Chavous’ Motown Christmas Concert at Jamey’s House of Music.

Always in demand, these two brothers have been tearing up Philadelphia and the Tri-State area for over 30 years. Rich will be on Hammond B-3 and Rob will be on Guitar. Chavous will be joined by another well-respected vocalist, Ella Gahnt. Other guest artists performing will be Pamela Renee Smith, Marion Salaam, and Lisa’s brother Bobby D.

Chavous is a Delaware County girl all the way.

She grew up in Sharon Hill and graduated from Darby Township High School. She studied for a career in nursing at a hospital in Delaware County. Now, Chavous is a resident of Lansdown and could easily walk to Friday’s gig if she so desires.

Chavous is making a return visit to Jamey’s House of Music – the venue where she had a CD release party for her most recent album, “Breaking Down the Walls.”

“The CD is dedicated to my late husband Michael Hayes,” said Chavous, during a phone interview from her Delco home. “He died of cancer in 2014.

“We had a tour in Paris in 2019 and two trips to Puerto Rico. The Puerto Rico shows were tributes to Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner. One of them raised $3,000 for emergency relief in San Juan. Then, the pandemic hit, and everything shut down.”

Chavous has been singing her whole life.

“I started performing and singing in church when I was really young,” said Chavous. “The, my mom and dad managed me. Eventually, I got calls from agents. So, I started putting bands together – Lisa Chavous and Friends.”

In 1989 she began performing with the group Chapter One in banquet halls such as The Twelve Caesars and the Riviera Ballroom. In 1997 Lisa won first prize while competing in the Temple University jazz station talent contest sponsored by B&V outreach. In 1999 she began forming bands that performed for a variety of audiences. These ensembles eventually became known as Lisa Chavous and Friends.

“My first band was a jazz band. We played a lot of jazz clubs including the Blue Note in New York. I was on the jazz side for a while.

“We were really blessed with being able to book shows at country clubs in Delco. One night, the sax player couldn’t make the show. So, they sent another cat – and it was Byard Lancaster.”

The late, great Byard Lancaster was an alto saxophonist/flutist from Philadelphia who was part of the wave of free jazz inspired by John Coltrane. His music had many cultures in its DNA such as blues, reggae and Afrobeat and he lived in a variety of places including Chicago, France and Nigeria. But he always returned to jazz and his hometown.

After watching Chavous perform many years ago, Lancaster said, “I have recorded with Jonny Copeland, and have known Shemekia Copeland since she was a lttle girl, when I was on the road with her father. I’ve got to tell you the best female blues vocalist to come along since Shemekia is without a doubt, Lisa Chavous.”

This quote came from the musician who discovered Kevin Eubanks, the Roots, and Stanley Clarke.

“A couple years later, I ran into Byard at a blues festival in Media,” said Chavous. “He told me there was a blues band — the Philadelphia Blues Messengers –that needed a vocalist and asked if I wanted to go to Paris. That was in the early 2000s. He opened so many doors for me.

“For me, getting into the blues was a fluke. I was supposed to be going Motown and playing country clubs. Then, blues came in with Byard. I just became an icon in Philly as a blues singer. People wanted the blues and it never stopped. I realized – this music is me.”

Chavous is frequently compared to Tina Turner, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Ruth Brown, and Irma Thomas, who along with Billie Holiday and Mahalia Jackson are among her primary musical influences. She a been singing in church and performing in shows since she was five in a career that encompasses jazz, blues, soul, gospel and rock.

In 1989, she began performing with the group Chapter One in banquet halls such as The Twelve Caesars and the Riviera Ballroom. In 1997, Chavous won first prize while competing in the Temple University jazz station talent contest sponsored by B and V outreach. In 1999, she began forming bands that performed for a variety of audiences. These ensembles eventually became known as Lisa Chavous and Friends.

Chavous has performed with jazz greats Byard Lancaster, Odean Pope, Trudy Pitts, Pat Martino, Jimmy McGriff and Bootsie Barnes, and is regularly backed by former members of Patti LaBelle’s band, as well as by Don Evans, former guitarist for Billy Joel.

Chavous, who is a nurse, has also donated her talents at a variety of functions that benefit children’s organizations supporting research for multiple sclerosis and the anti-AIDS foundation.
Lisa’s forte is her great versatility in singing jazz, blues, and rhythm and blues, all with tons of soul that projects her sincere love and devotion to her music and that creates powerful audience attraction and response.

Chavous will be selling her new CD, “The Underground Hustle” at this weekend’s show.

Video link for Lisa Chavous – https://youtu.be/3N0iG_x7u44.

Ella Gahnt

Ella Gahnt is not only her (stage) name, but also a description of the music she plays and of her singing style.

Gahnt is a vocalist in the jazz/traditional pop style who has performed with some of the most talented musicians in the quad-state area of Philadelphia, New Jersey, Delaware and New York. She also has worked professionally as a studio vocalist/performer for many years.

“Ella Gahnt, which is my stage name, was given to me by my husband Leon Mitchell,” said Gahnt, during a phone interview from her home in the East Oak Lane section of Philadelphia.

“It comes from the persona I want when I perform – elegant. I wat to be like the performers back in the day who dressed to the nines – Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole. They put on a show. It’s all about entertaining.”

Mitchell is a sax player and a key figure in Philly area jazz support groups such as The Jazz Bridge Project. He is also the Musical Director of the Philadelphia Legends of Jazz Orchestra

“I sang in church choirs when I was little then glee clubs in junior high and choirs in high school,” said Gahnt, a graduate of West Philadelphia High School. “I was also in one of the last versions of the Orlons in the late 60s.”

The Orlons were an R&B group from Philadelphia. The group had nine Top 20 hits. “The Wah-Watusi,” “Don’t Hang Up,” and “South Street” each sold over one million copies and were awarded gold disc status.

“In the 1980s, I decided I wanted to be a jazz singer,” said Gahnt. “I started listening to old favorites – especially to learn the songs and find different versions of the songs I liked.

“I was a big fan of Chick Corea and Return to Forever. I learned his song ‘You’re Everything.’ A lot of people played it but no-one played it the way Chick Corea wrote it. I played it the way Chick Corea wrote it.”

“My first jazz show was at the Freedom Theater. I was the featured vocalist for the Mike Hill Trio.”

“In my live shows, I do mostly traditional jazz – including some originals. One original is the set opener ‘What You’ll Hear from Me’ and another is ‘Let It Be Yesterday.’ I also do a lot of jazz standards.

“I venture into the more challenging music. When I’m working with guys on a regular basis, they can handle music that’s more challenging.”

Gahnt has released several albums over the years including “Immaculate Union,” “Third Stage of Elegance,” and “By Request.”

“I’m working now on a new album,” said Gahnt. “It’s a new project for Aaron Graves and me. It’s pretty much all recorded.”

Video link for Ella Gahnt — https://youtu.be/1jQyZncKxZg.

The show on December 22 will start at 8 p.m.

Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door.

The Philadelphia Ballet’s annual production of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” is one of the most cherished—and longest running—family holiday traditions for families in the region.

For many, a visit to Philadelphia to enjoy the lavish presentation by the world-famous Philadelphia Ballet is an integral part of the holiday season.

This year’s production, which is running now through December 30 at the Academy of Music (Broad and Locust streets, Philadelphia, 215-893-1999, www.philadelphiaballet.org), is in the fifth decade of staging of the classic ballet.

The ballet is based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s tale “The Nutcracker and The Mouse King” and set to a score by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky.

Featuring lively dances, colorful costumes and elaborate sets, “The Nutcracker” is a production that appeals to audiences of all ages. The original version of the timeless classic was first presented in Saint Petersburg, Russia in 1892.

The ballet is performed under the guidance of artistic director Angel Corella. The ballet is based on the choreography of George Balanchine.

Born in Madrid, Spain, Corella joined American Ballet Theatre in 1995 and was quickly promoted to principal dancer. In his 17-year career with ABT, he established himself as one of the greatest male dancers of his time.

Corella has also appeared as a guest artist with the Royal Ballet in London, the Kirov Ballet in Russia, and New York City Ballet. From 2008-2014, he served as director for his own company, the Barcelona Ballet.

“I was born in Spain and there is not a tradition of ‘The Nutcracker’ in that country,” said Corella.

“The first time I danced in the ballet was with the American Ballet Theater when I was 19. I thought it was the most beautiful ballet I had ever seen.

“I still feel that way. Mr. Balanchine said dancers are showing the music. The dancers make the music visible.

“The challenge is to keep it fresh. But no-one would dare to change the choreography.”

Balanchine’s choreography plays a major role in the Philadelphia Ballet’s annual production of “The Nutcracker.” The company has been doing both acts by Balanchine for the last 30 years.

George Balanchine, who was named Giorgi Balanchivadze when he was born in Russia in 1904, was one of the last century’s most celebrated choreographers.

He was a primary developer of ballet in the United States in his position as co-founder and ballet master of New York City Ballet. Balanchine created his version of “The Nutcracker” for the New York City Ballet in 1955.

The Philadelphia Ballet’s production of the ballet features more than 100 performers and has an annual audience attendance of more than 50,000. And it is staged in one of the most beautiful performance halls in the country.

The version of “The Nutcracker” performed by the Philadelphia Ballet features everything audiences associate with the timeless ballet—a cast of 19th-century families celebrating Christmas Eve, a little girl’s dream of her Nutcracker Prince, the Prince’s toy soldiers battling a fleet of mice led by the Mouse King and the crowd-pleasing second act of dances in the land of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

“Right now, we’re still doing Balanchine’s ‘Nutcracker’ because it works,” said Corella. “Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker’ is one of the best in the world.

“The whole process makes it feel like it’s Christmas. There is hot chocolate. It’s snowing outside. The whole family is there and time seems to stop. It goes back to a certain place and time that everyone seems to recognize—being able to re-connect and share.”

Video link for Philadelphia Ballet’s “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” – https://youtu.be/ypfQQ2duYS0.

Ticket prices start at $25.

The Grand Opera House (818 North Market Street, Wilmington, Delaware, 302-652-5577, www.thegrandwilmington.org) is hosting five performances of “The Nutcracker” by the First State Ballet Theatre on December 22 and 23.

“The Nutcracker” is a ballet in two acts that had its premiere on December 18, 1892 at the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg.

The First State Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” features music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and choreography byPasha Kambalov and Kristina Kambalov after Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa.

In the ballet, the Stahlbaums and their children Marie and Fritz are hosting their annual Christmas party. The mysterious Herr Drosselmeyer enters and entertains the children.

Drosselmeyer later appears disguised as a magician and presents a puppet show, followed by three life-size dancing dolls, to the delight of the guests.

The children begin to open gifts and Drosselmeyer presents his gift of a beautiful nutcracker to Marie. Marie admires it more than all the other toys. Fritz wants to play with the new doll; he pulls it away from Marie and throws it on the floor. Marie is heartbroken, but Drosselmeyer quickly repairs the nutcracker.

As the evening grows late, the guests depart and the Stahlbaum family retires for the evening. Marie comes downstairs to steal one last glance at her nutcracker under the Christmas tree. She falls asleep.

In a dream she sees the drawing room. A mouse scurries out of a hole, and then mice scamper out from everywhere. The mice try to take the nutcracker from Marie until the Mouse King enters. Marie is terribly frightened and hides behind a chair.

Suddenly her nutcracker appears life-size. Overcoming her fear, she runs up to him. The Nutcracker leads a regiment of soldiers to defend Marie. The Mouse King is defeated and disappears with his army.

Drosselmeyer transforms Marie into a lovely maiden and the Nutcracker into a handsome prince. Together, they set off on a journey to the Land of Snow where they are welcomed by dancing snowflakes.

In Act II, Marie and the prince arrive in the Land of Sweets and the festivities begin. First comes Chocolate, then Coffee and Tea, followed by Honey Cake, Marzipan and Gingerbread, Gumdrops and the Waltz of the Flowers. Marie and the prince dance merrily with the rest.

At last, the wonderful dream is over and Marie awakens.

Video link for First State Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” — https://youtu.be/FuZ4u4NdXI4.

Performances are scheduled for 2 and 7 p.m. on December 16, 2 p.m. on December 17, 7 p.m. on December 22 and 2 p.m. on December 23.

Ticket prices for the shows at The Grand Opera House range from $24.99-$67.

People’s Light (39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, peopleslight.org) is presenting “A Christmas Carol” Adapted from Charles Dickens by Zak Berkman now through December 31.

Audiences are invited to witness the miraculous redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge in this fresh approach to Charles Dickens’ classic. Infused with original music and traditional English carols performed by a stellar ensemble—featuring Ian Merrill Peakes as Scrooge—accompanied by a 5-piece band, this jubilant retelling of the beloved Yuletide ghost story is the perfect way to celebrate the holidays.

The production also features  Kennedy Caughell (Emily Cratchit & Kind Chorus), Akeem Davis (Bob Cratchit & Kind Chorus), Max Gallagher (Martha Cratchit & Kind Chorus), Jahi Kearse (Jacob Marley & Kind Chorus), Maya Lagerstam (Ghost of Christmas Present & Kind Chorus), Anna Faye Lieberman (Ghost of Christmas Past & Kind Chorus), Tom Teti (Mr. Fezziwig & Kind Chorus), Owen Ahlmer (Tiny Tim – Ivy Cast) and Prince Peay (Tiny Tim – Holly Cast).

The production, which was adapted by Zak Berkman from Charles Dickens, features original music by Berkman, arrangements by Mitch Chakour. It is directed by Nell Bang-Jensen.

The show at People’s Light will run through December 31. Ticket prices start at $55.

The mainstage show at Candlelight Theatre (2208 Millers Road, Arden, Delaware, 302- 475-2313, www.candlelighttheatredelaware.org) is “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which is running now through December 23.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a 1946 American Christmas supernatural drama film produced and directed by Frank Capra. It is based on the short story and booklet The Greatest Gift self-published by Philip Van Doren Stern in 1943, which itself is loosely based on the 1843 Charles Dickens novella, “A Christmas Carol.”

The film stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a man who has given up his personal dreams in order to help others in his community and whose thoughts of suicide on Christmas Eve bring about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody. Clarence shows George all the lives he touched and what the world would be like if he did not exist.

Today, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is considered to be one of the greatest films of all time and among the best Christmas films. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and has been recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made. It was No. 11 on the American Film Institute’s 1998 greatest movie list, No. 20 on its 2007 greatest movie list, and No. 1 on its list of the most inspirational American films of all time.

The story starts on Christmas Eve 1945 in Bedford Falls, New York, with George Bailey contemplating suicide. The prayers of his family and friends reach Heaven, where guardian angel second class Clarence Odbody is assigned to save George in order to earn his wings.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is running now through December 23 at the Candlelight Theater with shows on Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday matinees.

Tickets, which include a buffet meal, beverages, dessert, and free parking, are $71.50 for adults and $33 for children.

The American Music Theatre (2425 Lincoln Highway East, Lancaster, 800-648-4102, www.AMTshows.com) has its holiday show running now through December 30.

The AMT’s 2023 show, “The First Noel,” is an all-new presentation of favorite sacred and secular holiday songs performed by professional artists from across the country. The show will feature spectacular vocal harmonies, lively musical arrangements, impressive dancing, and the music of the AMT Orchestra.

Also featured will be elaborate scenery, elegant costumes and a theater decked out with holiday decorations.

Patrons can witness the magic and splendor of the holiday celebration as AMT presents “The First Noel” featuring incredible singers, astonishing dancers, wondrous costumes, breathtaking sets, and all the endearment of a perfect fireside family moment.

Audience members will be able to bask in the beauty of the season and cherish the stories of spirit and love. Beautiful snowscapes, child-like joy, cherished stories, the spirit of love, and all your favorite things about the holiday season are cast onstage in this glorious celebration of timeless holiday classics.

The show will have both matinee and evening performances each week with the addition of 10:30 a.m. performances on Saturdays throughout December. Ticket prices start at $25.

1812 Productions (1812productions.org) is dedicated to creating theatrical works of comedy and comedic works of theater that explore and celebrate our sense of community, our history, and our humanity.

1812 Productions was founded in 1997 by Jennifer Childs and Peter Pryor, two long-time friends and artistic collaborators, with a dedication to comedy, theater, and Philadelphia artists.

1812 Productions is the only professional theater company in the country dedicated to comedy and was the recipient of an honorary citation from the City of Philadelphia for outstanding work and commitment to the Philadelphia arts community.

This weekend, 1812 Productions is presenting their popular political satire, “This Is The Week That Is.”

A celebrated part of the Philadelphia theatre season for the past 17 years, the show delivers sharp satire and content that changes with the headlines. This year’s production will run now through December 31 at Plays & Players Theatre, which is located at 1714 Delancey Place in Philadelphia.

Featuring musical parodies, improvised comedy, and a versatile cast of comedy pros, “This Is The Week That Is” is a hilarious mix of SNL, The Daily Show, and The Carol Burnett Show on a mission to tell the truth and make it funny!

Ticket prices start at $44. Select performances are mask-required.

Ardmore Music Hall (23 East Lancaster Avenue, Ardmore, www.ardmoremusic.com) will present The Weight Band on December 21, Stop Making Sense on December 22, Beru Revue on December 23 and a “Willie Special Holiday Special” on December 27.

The Sellersville Theater (24 West Temple Avenue, Sellersville, 215-257-5808, www.st94.com) will have Irish Christmas In America on December 21, Almost Queen on December 22 and 23, and Matt Freedman & The Herd with Special Guest Matt Dorsey on December 27.

The Colonial Theater (227 Bridge Street, Phoenixville, thecolonialtheatre.com/events) will host Ted The Fiddler’s Birthday Bash on December 23.

The Living Room and Cricket Café (104 Cricket Avenue, Ardmore, livingroomardmore.com) will present Hush Band on December 21.

Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center (226 North High Street, West Chester, www.uptownwestchester.org) will present Gillian Grassie on December 21, Twelve Twenty-Four on December 22 and “A Dream Is A Wish Princess Holiday Concert” on December 23.

118 North (118 North Wayne Avenue, Wayne, www.118northwayne.com) will have onyx&honey, Cowmuddy, AC Sapphire and Anjuli Josephine on December 21, Molly Martin on December 22, Mellow Fever and Ken Kearns on December 23, and Rift (Phish tribute) on December 27.
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