On Dec. 22, three very talented and very different Charleston vocalists will take the stage for two performances at Forte Jazz Lounge. A collaboration between the singers and What If? Productions, Carol of the Belles returns this year for a holiday music cabaret. The “Belles” in question are Nakeisha Daniel, Becca Anderson, and Tiffany Gammell. In the warm, intimate confines of a piano bar, they’ll sing seasonal favorites and Christmas-related songs that’ll be sure to light up the holiday spirit.
“There will be something for everyone,” Gammell says. “Christmas or the holidays in general bring different emotions for people based on their experiences, but whether it’s love or loss, people will find something that resonates with them because we’re singing quite a few songs. The program lasts for about an hour and a half, and we have everything from your standard American Songbook stuff to really obscure things that you wouldn’t think of that could be a holiday song. But the spin we put on it kind of helps you get in that festive spirit.”
OK, so since the singer didn’t feel like spoiling the surprise, we figured maybe What If? Productions’ co-founder and artistic director Kyle Barnette would shed some light. And he did, sort of.
“What’s fun is that we do a mix,” he says. “If you’re a traditionalist, we’ll have some of the traditional songs like ‘Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.’ Tyler Sim, our pianist, does really beautiful instrumentations of Christmas classics, and this year we’re doing a medley of songs from those claymation Christmas specials from the 1970s like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. They all have some memorable songs in them. And we’ll do a couple of Broadway tunes, too.”
And that’s about as far as Barnette will go, because he doesn’t want to give too much away.
Daniel, Gammell, and Anderson have all worked with Barnette and each other in different configurations before, but the three singers had never shared the stage at the same time. That was something that everyone involved wanted to fix.
“The three of them knew each other, but we couldn’t figure out a way to get all of these voices together in a cohesive show,” Barnette says. “And we sort of brainstormed and decided to do something for Christmas. They talked about ideas for the name first, and we structured a holiday show from there.”
“We had always kind of worked around each other and done different projects with What If? Productions,” Gammell says. “But we had never had the chance to do something together. We always joked that it would be like the Dream Team if we could just figure out a way where it could be the three of us.”
Gammell adds that since the idea was for the three vocalists to share the stage, they’ll be doing that for the entire Carol of the Belles performance.
“We’re all onstage the whole time,” she says, “and we take turns between trios and duets and solos.”
Both Gammell and Barnette say that they’re looking forward to the intimacy of the piano bar atmosphere, with Gammell in particular mentioning that it’s a refreshing change for her.
“I was classically trained,” she says. “And so I sang opera for years, which is kind of like the Olympics of singing, if you will. And what I love about cabaret is the freedom for improvisation and the freedom to be a little bit more creative than what’s written on the page. You can fully immerse yourself in a song and take the audience somewhere with you, and it’s totally your creation. It’s a lot more personal than classical singing because you can really take the audience on a journey.”
“Music plays a big part in everything that What If? does,” Barnette adds. “To be able to look the audience in the eyes and engage them directly, is a very different feel. The idea is to make it feel like you’re at somebody’s house in front of the fire for a cozy Christmas.”
There will be one more person onstage to share in that feel for a bit: singer, actor, and director Brian Porter. Porter will join the Belles for a few songs, and his presence is important, as What If? Productions prepares to celebrate their 10th anniversary. Porter starred in their first-ever production, Hedwig & the Angry Inch.
Barnette says that the piano bar series is part of What If?’s goal to constantly evolve, a goal that’s kept them alive and relevant in the competitive Charleston arts scene for a decade.
“You have to keep challenging yourself,” he says, “We added the series in season seven as a way to branch ourselves out a little bit. And we’re continuing to grow. Our shows have grown; we just did a production of Hair, which was the biggest and most successful show we’ve ever produced. We’re trying to constantly reinvent ourselves, and we’re working to expand our reach while keeping our independent spirit and our quirkiness.”