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Sell-out crowd: Christmas at The Ritz entertains audience

From timeless Gaelic melodies to classic and playful Christmas pop, from The Nutcracker’s Sugar Plum Fairy to Anna and Elsa from “Frozen” —  last Thursday night, a sold-out audience at Greenville’s iconic Ritz Theatre celebrated the holiday season with a showcase of local talent both past and present. They sang, danced, drummed and played their hearts out for family, friends and arts lovers alike, all for a hometown cause — the Greenville High School Band Boosters.

“Christmas at the Ritz: A Celebration of Hometown Talent” was the first event of its kind, bringing together young musicians from both public and private schools, veteran Greenville Area Arts Council Ritz Players, Susan Berry Andrews’ and Sonya Sims Rice’s dance students and some Greenville High School graduates who returned to share their talents with the community.

While many of the performers were introduced via Facebook in the days leading up to the show, organizers Cheryl Gates and Jennifer Shealy of the Boosters were careful to keep the song list “hush-hush” from the public.

“We wanted to keep some surprises in place for our audience — and we are really pleased with how receptive everyone was to this great mix of Christmas music,” Gates said.

“We were so excited to see this show sell out and for everyone to see  just how much talent this community has to offer,” Shealy added.

The evening was dedicated to GAAC executive director and longtime arts advocate Nancy Idland, who was unable to attend due to health issues. Illness also prevented several scheduled performances, including GHS alum, instrumentalist Anthony “WoJamm” Womack, former Ritz Player and vocalist Mary Hannah Miller and Ritz Kid, Kalee Russell.

However, almost two dozen musical and dance performances remained to entertain the Ritz’s full house, among them the GHS Symphonic Band, the GHS Jazz Band, the GMS Advanced Band Ensemble, the GHS Flute Trio accompanying Anne Elise Shealy performing en pointe as the Sugarplum Fairy, Chris Gates and Kia Shealy’s lively duet of “Sleigh Ride Fantasy” on the piano, the Fort Dale Academy Drum Line under the direction of Dr. Rob Fossett, Jess Causey’s violin performance of “White Christmas” and solos and duets by Chad and Stacy Edwards, Christy Bozeman and Tommy Ryan, Joseph Longmire, Vicki Burt and Laura Simmons.

Vocalist Lori Neilson, a Ritz Player veteran, performed the haunting “Wexford Carol” and “I Saw Three Ships” arranged by Charlie Kennedy who performed on the recorder, joined by Jimmy Ansley on keyboard, Simon Edwards on drums and flautists Vivian Gates and Tori Norris.

Miss Susan’s School of Dance’s Advanced Tap students performed a spirited tap routine to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” while Sonya’s Dance and Fitness’s Contemporary Dancers delivered on “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” and “Snowman.” Guest performer Courtney Rice was showcased in the dancers’ exuberant Act 1 closing act, “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.”

Three performers, all former students of the legendary music educator “Miss” Millie McDonald, who passed away earlier this year, paid tribute to their beloved teacher and mentor with their performances: Joseph Powell, accompanied by Rhonda Bentley, “The Christmas Song; Jennifer Mahand Smith accompanied by Malcolm Mahand, “Away in a Manger” and Wimberly Edwards Giardina, accompanied by Rhonda Bentley, “O Holy Night” and “Memories.”

As the evening drew to a close, GHS Band Director Brett Johnson alluded to “Christmas at the Ritz” becoming an annual holiday event to raise funds for the GHS band program, which continues to garner accolades across the region. He also expressed his thanks to two special ladies, Jennifer Shealy and Cheryl Gates, who were each presented with flowers on stage by Greenville High School students.

Gates’ husband, Dale, says he can attest to all the hard work the two women put into organizing the community-wide performance.

“These two hard-working ladies have been tolling away on this labor of love for months,” Gates said.

“I feel that I can speak for them both and say that when you know the lives of your children and so many other children are affected by the arts in a positive and life-changing way, no amount of blood, sweat and tears is too much. The arts bring us all together as a community. It was an absolutely successful first event that we will all look forward to attending again and again in the years to come. Job well done, Jennifer and Cheryl,” he concluded.

Funds raised by the performance will be used for a variety of needs, including sheet music, travel expenses, instruments and uniforms for the band, which has grown in size from less than 20 members just a few years ago to more than 100 strong today.