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UNORTHODOX: The Altared Christmas gang, dressed and ready for holiday cheer

Minor Miracles

The Eastern strains of 'An Altared Christmas'

By Traci Hukill

THEY WON'T believe it in Peoria, but Rhan Wilson isn't making fun of Christmas. True, his show An Altared Christmas, now in its fifth year, puts carols in a minor key to comic effect—a dolorous "O Christmas Tree," an ominous "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," a distraught-bordering-on-unhinged "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus"—but the producer of the highly entertaining musical variety show says he is not, in fact, mocking the holiday. He's making fun of what people have done to it.

"I love 'Deck the Halls.' It's so beautiful," he says. "But it's a to-do list, right at this stressful time of year. Maybe for a single mother it's just too much: you've got to deck the halls with boughs of holly. You've gotta be jolly. You have to don your gay apparel. You have to troll the ancient Yuletide carol. So maybe by doing the song this way, people can get like a booster shot against that stress, so they can stop, right while they're having that fight or whatever, and remember it and laugh."

The odd thing is that Wilson & Co.'s version of "Deck the Halls," a dirgelike hymn sung by a woman choking back tears, is strangely beautiful. So is "Joy to the World." Same, even, with "Jingle Bells." All of them, once put through Wilson's minor miracle machine, evoke the music of the East—namely Russian music, which explains Wilson's Orthodox patriarch attire (at far right in photo above). Wilson says he's always had a soft spot for that genre—"It doesn't sound sad to me. It sounds beautiful," he says—and its suggestion of mystery and sorrow lends a slight ironic sheen to the peppy Christmas lyrics. Rendered through orchestration that for several years has included a clarinet and soprano sax, and which this year will include a violin, the music winds up reminiscent of Jewish klezmer, which adds yet another layer of humor.

Other songs, however, veer in a decidedly more sophisticated direction. "Angels We Have Heard on High," for example, makes for a compelling jazz number when sung by Tammi Brown, perhaps best known around town for her backup work with Sista Monica. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" takes its cues from a Police song that everyone will recognize sooner or later.

This year, the Altared Christmas performance includes a black-and-blue costume contest and a remembrance altar where the audience can share mementos, as well as a gospel-style improvised finale where, Wilson says, "when it happens, people will know it's the magic."

AN ALTARED CHRISTMAS is Saturday, Dec. 12, at 8pm at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $21 advance/$25 door, available at Streetlight Records, or

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