Making Spirits Bright: Holiday Tours

by Debi Moen
in Designer Watch
Brian Setzer Orchestra's Christmas Rocks, photo by Debi Moen
Brian Setzer Orchestra's Christmas Rocks, photo by Debi Moen

Sleigh bells ring, are you listening? They’re alerting us to other long-running holiday shows — beyond TSO. Designer Watch checked in on Brian Setzer, Oak Ridge Boys, Mannheim Steamroller, Amy Grant & Michael W. Smith, Ian Anderson, and Johnny Mathis tours.

» Brian Setzer

LD Bud Horowitz, with Brian Setzer Orchestra’s 13th Annual Christmas Rocks! tour for six or seven years now, says the show never fails to spread holiday cheer. Lighting is simple: “It’s all about finding the perfect look for each song, illuminating the players, and not lighting Brian when he’s not playing, singing or talking,” he says.

The festive stage set sparkles with holiday trappings including Christmas trees. Drum tech Charlie Workman dons the Santa suit, throwing candy into the crowd. For the finale, Horowitz triggers eight snow machines over and into the audience, to cap the show in a snow globe scene.

» Oak Ridge Boys

The Oak Ridge Boys embark on their 27th annual holiday run, with LD Dave Boots marking his 23rd year with the band. “My primary lighting comes from six white Christmas trees. (The rest is local lighting.) Each tree has a moving light hanging over it and a six-foot row of LED battens built into the tree for fantastic pixel-mapping effects,” Boots says. Trees placed between the LED video panels — new this year — allow integration with the video.

Back by popular demand is the fireplace scene, Boots says, describing the stone structure he and production manager Jeff Douglas designed and built — with a roaring fire. The Oaks gather around in rock chairs, sharing childhood memories. Later, Santa magically appears through the smoke with gifts for kids in the crowd.

» Mannheim Steamroller

Before Trans-Siberian Orchestra, there was Mannheim Steamroller, celebrating 32 years with their New Age takes on Christmas classics. They’re spreading spirit in two leapfrogging productions under Stephan Gotschel’s production/lighting design. Gotschel programmed and runs shows for Green Team dates west of the Mississippi, while Joshua White runs the Red Team for dates east.

Green Team production manager Pete Franks says the holiday production follows a format using specific visuals created for the music, but an LED wall has replaced the older video projection system.

Steamroller differs from TSO in being “truly a theatre show, a little more symphonic,” Franks says. “It’s a pleasant bunch of people. It’s less work, more fun. It worked out well that their popularity remains, so we get to do it every year.”

Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Jordan Smith and a symphony orchestra perform. Photo by Chad Landers

» Amy Grant & Michael W. Smith

Contemporary Christian artists Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith perform together with NBC’s The Voice winner Jordan Smith and a symphony orchestra. Lighting/scenic designer/operator Chad Landers has been with Grant for 12 years now. As Grant prefers props over projected images, Landers designs hard scenic portions of the production along with lighting. This year’s design takes a modern twist to the traditional tree. “It’s a triangular metal frame with a frost piece with ornaments on it. We’ve also got spherical ring pieces that turn into ornament shapes. She loves the real deal versus the animated. We’re also using a star drop, to throw it back Old School.”

For Vince Gill & Amy Grant’s “Christmas at the Ryman,” the modular set is easily compressed into the smaller venue. “Her show doesn’t lend itself to unnecessary gag lighting; we make it classy and elegant,” Landers says. “Amy doesn’t need the show production to make it happen, she carries it herself with her guitar.”

» Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson

LD Mark Wheatley, out with Ian Anderson’s “Jethro Tull: The Rock Opera” tour, says the crew turns minimal for “Ian Anderson’s Christmas Shows” in European cathedrals, to keep expenses down for the charity fundraiser gigs. So Wheatley relies on the sound crew to set up his lights.

“The show is an intimate evening by the fire with Ian and guests,” Wheatley explains. “With little power in cathedrals, LEDs are useful. A basic front wash from lamps on stands is all that’s required. The cathedrals are magnificent backdrops, so floor-mounted LED wash lights and a couple of spots for gobos give great looks. Sandstone or granite take light well and a tight focused uplighter on a 50-foot Gothic arch never fails to look fantastic and frame the artist nicely.”

» Johnny Mathis

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year indeed,” says LD Stacey Westbrook. “I am the lighting designer, technical director and stage manager for a crooner who’s been touring for 60 years and he’s still great at it.” Her predecessor, Richard Holsten, was the LD for 40 years until he passed away in January 2013, and she took over.

Westbrook uses whatever the venue has, with just four hours on show day to get the stage and lights ready. “That’s where the challenge is and that curls my toes,” she says. Some days she has more than 200 movers/LEDs. One night she made do with just 32 conventional fixtures. After that show, she says, “JM grabbed me and said, ‘You make it beautiful, even when you have nothing.’”

But one item on her must-have list: “Snow gobos. It’s all about snow.”

She adds, “As long as JM wants to keep singing, I’ll be there. My boss is 81 and doesn’t use a teleprompter. If he forgets the words, he stops the orchestra and the audience goes ape-s—t. I love those truly human, foible moments. I cannot articulate how deeply I love my job.”

Happy holidays, everyone! Now tell us about your New Year’s Eve shows. Email Debi at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..