By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
With only four rehearsal days until showtime, the choreographer's temper is getting short. Tom yells at them to quit joking around and concentrate. They ignore him. "If it's not fun, I don't want to do it," Mike says.
They continue fighting over the pom-poms, who gets red and who gets green. "Don't worry about what color your pom-pom is, worry what you're going to do with it," Tom says, exasperated.
The Christmas cheer still doesn't sound very enthusiastic. They chant, We're gonna win, win, win! For Irving Berlin. But everyone sounds tired and like they're not gonna break a sweat fighting.
James instructs them to cheer like they're at a UT football game. They look at him blankly. Why would they care who wins a football game? Why would they even go to a football game? Sundays are for brunch and bottomless bellinis, one member says, not beer and uncomfortable outdoor bleachers.
They say they're method actors and they need more to work with. They don't understand their motivation. A tenor asks is it "sort of like we're getting together to cheer for who has the prettiest dress at the Academy Awards?"
"Give us a reference we can use," he says.
It's 45 minutes before curtain Saturday night, and Dewayne's nose has been bleeding for half an hour. "It just cracked open," he says. Long boxes of single red roses sit on the table. Mike is upset that they want him to pin his boutonniere onto his tux's satin lapel. "You want me to poke a hole in the only satin I own?" he asks.
Barefoot, Walter is frantically pacing. He forgot to bring black socks and no one has a spare pair, so he sent his lover home. As it gets closer to showtime, Walter debates running to Kroger and buying a pair of panty hose. "I have to be perfect," he says repeatedly, rocking back and forth. "I have to be."
Like they're in a black-tie locker room, men walk around the dressing room in tuxedos and tightie-whities. As they help one another with cufflinks and cummerbunds, one laments that he can't wear his gold and ruby buttons but has to stick with boring black studs. Clutching ice to his upturned nose, Dewayne runs a lint brush over everyone's tuxes.
Men massage each other's shoulders, give encouraging hugs and quick kisses. There's a frantic, chaotic, any-minute-now-something-big-is-going-to-happen excitement in the air. A few members say they're a wreck. They're worn down, dying for a nap and afraid they're going to throw up.
The smell of Hall's cough drops overpowers the cologne in the air. Several people are sick, drained from a grueling schedule of late-night, last-minute rehearsals. A handful look like they're wearing rouge, but it's just feverish blushing. James stands in the corner, his libretto lying atop the Christmas cookies as he sings and conducts toward the wall.
As people snap pictures, James -- the eternal stage mom-- cries, "Big teeth, girls! Lots of porcelain."
Ten minutes before 8 p.m., James gathers the choir together to read a semi-form letter from Mayor Lee Brown thanking them for the lovely invitation to see the performance. He says the choir adds to Houston's diversity and status as an international city and says the city will open its resources to the choir.
"I'm not exactly sure what that means," James says. "But I'm gonna find out."
Almost every pew in the sanctuary is full; it looks like a well-attended wedding of a well-liked couple. Yesterday the choir had already presold twice as many tickets as were sold for all performances last year.
They start with a serious, somewhat scary Latin "Gloria," accompanied by a creepy, film-noir organ. With a dash of Auntie Mame, they declare it's time to haul out the holly and make the transition into more upbeat tunes and skits. There's also a scene from choir member Charles Baker's newly written musical, All About Christmas Eve, where guys in beanies and hair bows stand in line to see Santa, complaining that their inner child has to pee.
A 1950s-style doo-wop group steps forward wearing Santa's-little-helper hats. Santa Claus is coming to to-ow-own. Downtown, they sing, snapping their fingers like the featured act on American Bandstand. He knows when you've been sleeping. He knows whose heart you break.
In their shoop-shoop version, Saint Nick's coming to Shop, fa la la la la, shop. Shop.
The first act's showstopper is a series of rewritten carols. Charles narrates, saying that carols are folk tales handed down in the oral tradition -- "oral tradition," he says, is one of his favorite phrases from music history class. They start with a scary Sweeney Todd version of a vengeful Santa coming to separate naughty from nice. "The flesh of the naughty is starting to tingle," they sing ominously.
Next is an unrecognizable Phillip Glass-style "Silent Night," which puts even the choir to sleep. A soloist charges out wearing lederhosen and white kneesocks and singing a Lawrence Welk polka version of "Away in a Manger."
Then they slip into a trashy cabaret version of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus."