A Cozy Christmas Evening: UA grad promises new music, laughs, nostalgia

A Cozy Christmas Evening: UA grad promises new music, laughs, nostalgia
LARA JO HIGHTOWER/Special to the Free Weekly

TheatreSquared’s holiday show “The Heart of Christmas: Songs and Stories of the Season” may be just what you need to get into the holiday spirit. A classic cabaret, the show features the talented Rob Sutton, his velvet vocals, Christmas songs — both classic and contemporary — and stage patter that hits all the notes, witty and droll to meaningful and nostalgic. The show’s (and the singer’s) perfect pitch are a result of Sutton’s longstanding desire to create a cabaret show themed around his favorite holiday. He’s been thinking about this for a while, he says.

“Before I ever started writing the show, I knew I wanted to do a show that was sophisticated, contemporary, something that felt like sitting by a cozy fireplace with a blanket and your favorite slippers with a loved one or family and hot cocoa — that’s the feeling I wanted,” he says. “I didn’t necessarily want it to feel like a holiday party. I wanted some weight to it. Because that’s how I came into the process, I ended up choosing a lot of songs that may not be all that well known but hopefully will unfold in the moment in a way that is really meaningful to people.”

But, Sutton adds, that doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty of favorites included in the evening as well.

“I’m singing ‘The Christmas Song,’ I’m singing ‘The Christmas Waltz,’ ‘The Man with the Bag,’ ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ ‘This Christmas,’” Sutton assures. “There are going to be plenty of recognizable tunes that people love. But, hopefully, people will walk away saying, ‘Wow, so much beautiful new music that I didn’t know,’ and, hopefully, the meaning behind those new songs will speak to them.”

Sutton, a University of Arkansas graduate and a Mountain View native, has an impressive theater resume: He’s performed on Broadway and in a variety of regional theater productions. His beautiful baritone has been heard twice before on the TheatreSquared stage in “Fun Home” and “Next to Normal.”

He had just moved to New York City in 1996 when cabaret was introduced to him.

“It’s such a beautiful art form when it’s done well,” he says. “What I love about it is that it’s intimate, it’s personal. One of the main characteristics of cabaret is that the fourth wall is broken. They used to tell us that, as an audience member, you should know more about the artist when you leave than you did when you came in — so it’s revealing. That doesn’t mean it has to be about your personal life. It could be your take on something, whether that’s a comic take on a universal theme or, alternatively, a lot of cabaret is autobiographical — your journey through life.”

In 2003, Sutton collaborated with Lenny Watts, an award-winning performer/director/producer in the New York City cabaret scene, to write and perform his first cabaret show.

“It was born out of me wanting to do my own thing, because I was tired of walking into audition rooms singing, ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,’ because it was expected of me,” Sutton says. “My first [cabaret] was very typical, ‘I moved to New York, here’s my journey.’ I look back and cringe, but I think that’s part of the journey of cabaret — you start with that, and then you learn, and your subject matter becomes more sophisticated.

“The tendency is to get overly sentimental, but the challenge is to talk about those things that are important and maybe heavy in a way that is relatable and might get a chuckle,” he adds. “That’s the challenge that I like. I was faced with that with this show, because I wanted to address where we are in the world with this pandemic, but I’m doing it in a way that, I hope, is funny. And that’s what excites me.”

Putting together a cabaret show has different challenges than learning a part in a musical, says Sutton. For one thing, a cabaret artist is responsible for writing the stage patter that links the songs chosen to move the story along. Perhaps most difficult is the fact that a cabaret performer speaks directly to their audience.

“I think, especially as someone who studied theater — we learned about that ‘public solitude’ kind of thing. We know the audience is there, but we create a world where we eliminate them in order to tell the story,” says Sutton. “Early in my cabaret journey, that was a little jarring, to look people in the eye and see them receive the message, receive the story that I’m telling. It can be a little daunting at times. But that’s another part that I love — it’s thrilling.”

Sutton wrote and rehearsed the show in New York City in collaboration with Watts and musical director Steven Ray Watkins, a cabaret veteran with over four decades under his belt as a musician. In Arkansas, Jason Burrows will serve as co-musical director and will be responsible for the instrumental arrangements and for rehearsing the band. Burrows is a frequent collaborator with TheatreSquared, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas and has worked previously in New York City as a performer and director.

“We have a piano, bass, drums and a cello, and Jason is orchestrating some beautiful moments with those instruments, so I’m really excited about that,” says Sutton.

Sutton grew up singing for family and friends at church and school in Mountain View, but it’s been decades since he’s performed for an audience consisting of so many familiar faces. He professes to some nervousness as a result.

“You hear performers say, ‘I’d rather sing in front of 20,000 people than at church,’ and this feels like church in that family and friends are all still here,” he says. “I have received many, many DMs on Instagram saying, ‘We’ll be there on such- and-such night.’ It’s gratifying — and a little overwhelming. I try to tune that out and just remind myself that I’m here to do a show, tell a story and create a moment.”



The Heart of Christmas: Songs and Stories of the Season

WHEN — 8 p.m. Dec. 18, 26; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 17 and Dec. 21-23

WHERE — TheatreSquared, 477 W. Spring St. in Fayetteville

COST — $41-$54

INFO — 777-7477, theatre2.org

Categories: Music