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We found your Austin 'Holiday Concert' on the plaza at Zach Theatre

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman

Sometimes during an Austin show, I look around at the audience and wonder: “Are they aware just how lucky we are?”

Austin is blessed with such high-caliber talent, day in and day out, it is sometimes easy to take these bountiful gifts for granted.

You’d be foolish to do so on the People’s Plaza at Zach Theatre where on Thursday some 100 widely separated guests took in Chanel, Roderick Sanford, Kenny Williams, Leslie McDonel and Daniel Rowan in “A Rockin’ Holiday Concert.”

(Judy Arnold and Jessica O’Brien cycle into the cast of this show that plays six times a week through Jan. 3, with provisions made for inclement weather.)

Early in the 1-hour show, veteran Zach performer Sanford asked the audience to imagine if Zach’s former “Rockin’ Christmas Party” met Zach’s updated “A Christmas Carol” — at a chic discotheque.

In Zach Theatre's "A Rockin' Holiday Concert," Daniel Rowan has a enough wide-eyed charisma to fill two or three plazas and a high voice that closely matches the contemporary selections in the show.

Some background: In 1994, after he made a mega-hit out of “Beehive,” a mash note to women pop singers of the 1960s, the ever-creative Dave Steakley cooked up “Rockin’ Christmas Party,” a sort of holiday version of “Beehive” at the Paramount Theatre. This revue combined the sensibilities of Motown with seasonal treats and pop standards, including takes from the Phil Spector’s classic “A Christmas Gift to You.” The show filled the 1,200-seat Paramount for many a holiday evening and matinee performance each year well into the 21st century.

As for “A Christmas Carol,” in 2015, Steakley reimagined the Charles Dickens novella through the lenses of preexisting songs, along with reinforced themes of love, joy and social justice. After a rocky start, it soon became another must-see Austin holiday tradition, starring some of the current concert’s performers.

Rockerick Sanford, who is in Zach Theatre's "A Rockin' Holiday Concert' and has always commanded a reverberant bass voice and a lofty presence, has also developed a sense of power and gravitas over the years, especially singing a scalding version of “The Man in the Middle.”

There was no way Zach could reproduce that spectacular show any more than Ballet Austin could do a live, in-person staging of “The Nutcracker” this year.

So Steakley chose the plaza — and this is where the discotheque angle comes in — people could dance in their safe zones with light sticks and as much fervor as they felt in their bones. A good number of the songs, especially a series of recent radio hits, were made for sybaritic dancing.

The singers were confined to a reconfigured stage set up in front of the Topfer Theatre. And what singers! If you can find five more prodigious vocal talents anywhere, you let me know. (They could use a little more rehearsal on their movement, though.)

Rockerick Sanford, who has always commanded a reverberant bass voice and a lofty presence, has developed a sense of power and gravitas over the years, especially singing a scalding version of “The Man in the Middle.”

A Zach charmer, Kenny Williams might be the smoothest singer in town. His glossy tenor and sleek moves would make any crooner envious.

Leslie McDonel has a brassy, bluesy and boisterous voice that generated plenty of chills, especially during “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).”

Leslie McDonel and Daniel Rowan are fairly new to me. McDonel, who recently played Janis Joplin at Zach, has a brassy, bluesy and boisterous voice that generated plenty of chills, especially during “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” — and I saw Darlene Love sing it at the Paramount a few seasons back.

Rowan, remembered for “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” at Zach, has a enough wide-eyed charisma to fill two or three plazas and a high voice that closely matches the contemporary selections in the show.

Then there is Chanel: Chosen to play the title role in London’s West End version of “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” she powered several Zach hits, including her award-winning turn as Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.”  To me, Chanel can do anything, but here she dug into her gospel roots to lend “A Rockin’ Holiday Concert” the maximum heart and soul.

It has not been lost on Zach’s leadership that the pandemic inadvertently revealed the potential of its People’s Plaza. Without COVID-19 restrictions, it could easy handle 400 or 500 guests. So for the six months out of the year when the weather generally cooperates, Zach will have another big venue at virtually no construction cost.

One way or another, I would not have been anywhere else except that plaza for that one glorious holiday night.

“Rockin’ Holiday Concert” plays through Jan. 3 on the People’s Plaza at Zach Theatre, 202 S. Lamar Blvd., zachtheatre.org, 512-476-0541.

There's no better place in Austin to get into the holiday spirit than on the People's Plaza at Zach Theatre for "A Rockin' Holiday Concert."