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Gulf Coast Symphony delivers unique holiday musical revue in “Snowbird Follies”

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Courtesy of Gulf Coast Symphony

On stage at the Music & Arts Community Center in Fort Myers is a holiday musical revue like nothing you’ve ever heard before. Conceived by Gulf Coast Symphony founder, Music Director and Maestro Andrew Kurtz, cleverly scripted by DJ Salisbury and brilliantly arranged by Julie Bearden Carver, “Snowbird Follies” parodies some of our favorite Christmas songs and introduces other tunes few people have heard before. The result is a holiday-themed show with a tangy twist of citrus where all references to snow are purely nostalgic!

“We’ve put some local history into a revue of songs you know along with songs you don’t know,” said Salisbury. “Some songs will have parody lyrics that specifically reflect what it’s like to be a snowbird in Florida, to live half your life in the South during the cold months and half your life in the North.”

The show opens in 1914 in the Pavese Barber Shop in the century-old Earnhardt Building on First Street in downtown Fort Myers with the city’s venerable winter resident Thomas Edison trying to convince his friend and protégé Henry Ford to become the town’s newest snowbird.

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Tom Hall, WGCU
Ryan Craig and Justin Dresner as Henry Ford and Thomas Edison in the Pavese Barber Shop in Gulf Coast Symphony's production of "Snowbird Follies"

“Apparently, the entire community would show up on Saturdays to get their hair cut and all the gossip and news,” Salisbury explains. “So that’s where we open the show, at the moment Edison is endeavoring to convince Henry Ford to become a snowbird.”

Fast forward to present times, where a local woman seeks to persuade her friend to winter in Fort Myers as well.

“So, we blend two songs, one a play on ‘Winter Wonderland’ which we’re calling “Winter Summerland,’ and the other called ‘Snowbird Dream,’ sort of reminiscent of ‘Teenage Dream’ by Katy Perry, but it’s an original parody, and that’s the tongue-in-cheek style we’ll be going for.”

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Tom Hall, WGCU
Kimberly Suskind and Ruthgena Faraco singing Kay Perry parody Snowbird Dream in Gulf Coast Symphony's production of "Snowbird Follies"

Salinger’s fun and clever lyrics capture the holiday spirit - Southwest Florida style. To convey the romance of wintering in a dreamy snowbird summerland, you need singers capable of exquisite harmonization, and Ryan Craig, Justin Dresner, Ruthgena Faraco and Kimberly Suskind deliver the goods like Santa and his eight reindeer.

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Courtesy of Gulf Coast Symphony
(L-R) Ruthgena Faraco, Justin Dresner, Ryan Craig and Kimberly Suskind in Gulf Coast Symphony's production of "Snowbird Follies"

From Pavese Barber Shop and Southwest Florida’s sandy shores, the show jumps to historic McCollum Hall in Fort Myers’ Dunbar community. It’s Christmas, 1944. Inside the second floor dance hall, USO entertainer Ruthgena Faraco is treating Black and white troops training at nearby Buckingham and Page Army Air Fields to some of that left-hand Chitlin’ Circuit jazz.

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The Chitlin’ Circuit reigned supreme in predominantly African-American communities in the 1930s and ‘40s, when Black entertainers were not welcome in white establishments. So a network of tight, crowded nightclubs, dance halls, juke joints and theaters emerged in African-American neighborhoods in the Midwest and Southeast as an alternative to white clubs and theaters. As it turned out, Chitlin’ Circuit venues hosted some of the best talent in American music history. Among the Black entertainers who performed at McCollum Hall were Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, B.B. King, Lionel Hampton, Otis Redding, Lucky Milliner and Duke Ellington and his orchestra.

Of course, not everyone celebrates Christmas. There’s Chanukah, Kwanza and Festivus for the rest of us, and that makes this the most wonderful time of the year.

Some of the numbers included in this oft-irreverent revue are delightfully silly, like a spoof of “O Christmas Tree” in which crooner Justin Dresner serenades a palm tree instead of a Douglas fir.

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Courtesy of Gulf Coast Symphony
Justin Dresner performing in Gulf Coast Symphony's production of "Snowbird Follies"

In this holiday revue, the affectionately humorous is counterbalanced by the romantic. Non-seasonal oldies like Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville” become Florida-themed holiday anthems, and classics like “The Christmas Song” are contrasted with rare gems like “The Christmas Waltz,” which first came to light for Hallmark fans in last year’s movie of the same name starring Lacey Chabert and Will Kemp.

“It’s a fabulous show,” effuses Gulf Coast Symphony Artistic Operations Manager Julie Bearden Carver. She created a number of the arrangements included in the show. “I’m hoping that it will become a tradition here in Southwest Florida.”

Anyone who’s seen “Jekyll & Hyde,” “Head over Heels,” or “Young Frankenstein” at New Phoenix Theatre knows Julie Bearden Carver as a gifted musical director. In this production, she gives a virtuoso piano performance with nary a break. While there is no waltz in “Snowbird Follies,” Kimberly Suskind turns in a sizzling hot tap number in the middle of “Little Jack Frost Get Lost,” which was popularized in 1947 by Bing Crosby and Peggy Lee. The audience has its say, getting to decide whether the Jonas Brother’s “Like It’s Christmas,” Justin Bieber’s “Mistletoe,” Ru Paul’s “Hey Sis, It’s Christmas” or Kelly Clarkson’s “Underneath the Tree” should be the next song you’ll hear in every waiting room in “God’s Waiting Room.”

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Courtesy of Gulf Coast Symphony
(L-R) Ruthgena Faraco, Ryan Craig, and Kimberly Suskind in Gulf Coast Symphony's production of "Snowbird Follies"

At one point in the show, Ruthgena Faraco remarks wistfully that they do every Christmas classic without being on stage all night, but the ones they do, conjure the feelings we experience while spending quality time with old friends. Like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

Even here, “Snowbird Follies” has sugar plum treats in store for audiences, like a rousing rendition of “Jingle Bells,” the best-known and most commonly sung American song of all time.

“Snowbird Follies” is the first of five productions in Gulf Coast Symphony’s 2022-2023 theater season.

Founded in late 1995 by its current music director and CEO, Dr. Andrew Kurtz, the Gulf Coast Symphony is now the second-largest non-profit performing arts organization in Lee County.

GCS is comprised of the Gulf Coast Symphony, the Gulf Coast Chamber Orchestra, the Gulf Coast Jazz Collective, and the Music & Arts Community Center (MACC), which opened in January 2021.

This year more than 100 programs will be offered that present the best in classical music, jazz, world music, dance, opera, film, and musical theater. GCS will perform 15 shows at the 1,850-seat Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall, but the bulk of Gulf Coast Symphony’s performances will be staged in the organization’s more intimate 300-seat theater at the MACC. This world premiere production of "Snowbird Follies" runs through Dec. 18.

To read more stories about the arts in Southwest Florida visit Tom Hall's website: SWFL Art in the News.

Spotlight on the Arts for WGCU is funded in part by Naomi Bloom, Jay & Toshiko Tompkins, and Julie & Phil Wade.

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