REVIEW SpeakEasy Stage’s ‘Once’ a celebration even within its quiet moments

Dancing fiddlers and a rollicking music celebration is only the beginning.  Directed by Paul Melone and adapted from the 2007 romantic musical film of the same name, The SpeakEasy Stage Company presents the Tony Award-winning musical, Once extended through Sunday, April 7 at the Calderwood Pavilion in Boston, Massachusetts.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

Welcoming early arrivals to the show is a lively, comical, pre-show band that is also part of the talented Once cast.  Each cast member is also a musician and they all get their moment to shine.  With naturally flowing choreography by Ilyse Robbins, stomping guitarists and dueling fiddlers joyfully romp in a freestyle dance with the drummer.  The band has such personality and the performance is a wonderful preface to a quietly beautiful love story about a pair of lonely musicians who long for their place in the world.

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Eric Levenson’s absorbing set design enhances the production’s soulful atmosphere, featuring instruments hanging around a brick arch while musicians pop up sporadically during the production.  Though Once is set in Dublin, takes a lot at Czech and Irish traditions.  Guy is a lonely, sensitive street performer from Northside Dublin.  Portrayed with tight lipped earnestness by Nile Scott Hawver, Guy expresses his raw emotion through his songwriting, immediately leaving an impact with his first number, Leave.

Guy meets Girl, a talkative Czech pianist portrayed with quirky charm by Mackenzie Lesser-Roy.  Their immediate, humorous chemistry and her heartening, compassionate demeanor toward him is a particular highlight only topped by their remarkable duets, heightened during the show’s signature song, Falling Slowly.

Hawver does an impressive job portraying Guy’s gradual vulnerability while showing off his comic chops, especially during the song Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy, but it is Lesser-Roy who shines, her chiming voice delivering a stirring rendition of The Hill and If You Want Me.  She carries a longing and loneliness she recognizes in Guy and her plucky, irrepressible optimism leaves a mark on everyone she meets.

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Once also has its share of amusing moments.  Billy Butler is hilarious as hot blooded, macho music shop owner, Billy.  Jeff Song is a delight as Bank Manager in a wildly enthusiastic version of Abandoned in BandonJacob Brandt and Kathy St. George are charming as perpetual dreamer Andrej and as candid, strong-willed Girl’s mother Baruska respectively.

The songs on Once’s acoustic, fiddle-laden soundtrack contain timeless, contemplative messages and the ensemble certainly contributes to its playful moments, but Once’s greatest strength is its subtle nuances and the impalpable stillness within this simple tale, most evident in the ensemble’s lovely, a capella version of Gold.  Love can a simple, quiet declaration that lingers long after the show is over.

SpeakEasy Stage presents the Tony Award-winning musical, Once extended through Sunday, April 7 at the Calderwood Pavilion, 539 Tremont Street in Boston, Massachusetts.  Click here for more information and for tickets.  Click here for a closer look at the SpeakEasy Stage and its 2019 season.

CAEG’s ‘Princess Zhaojun’s’ Yang Donglin envisions how one woman united a nation

Continuing with the theme of International Women’s Day is a show about real life heroine.  During the Han Dynasty, an amazing, intelligent woman considered one of the four beauties of Ancient China left the world she knew to marry Huhanye in order to achieve peace on the Northern Border of China.

Princess Zhaojun, presented by China Arts and Entertainment Group (CAEG), is a compelling dance drama and features detailed, beautiful sets and costumes.  The Sleepless Critic interviewed accomplished costume designer Yang Donglin about his work and what is was like to visually bring the Han Dynasty and this story to life.

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China National Opera and Dance Drama Theatre present Princess Zhaojun for one weekend only at the Boch Shubert Theatre in Boston, MA March 16-17.  Its mission is to share traditional and contemporary Chinese performing arts around the world.  Click here for more information and tickets.

Yang Donglin

Accomplished costume designer Yang Donglin Photo courtesy of China Performing Arts Agency

Sleepless Critic:  Is this your first time working with the China Performing Arts Agency and what other shows have you worked on?

Yang Donglin:  For China Performing Arts Agency I was costume designer for the dance drama Confucius when it toured the US in 2017 and Dragon Boat Racing in 2016 and 2018.  I have also worked in dance drama for Du Fu, Chinese Orphan, Lotus and Li Bai and Opera for Jianzhen Crosses the Ocean to Japan, Turandot, The White-Haired Girl and Peasant Takes a Wife.

Princess Zhaojun. China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater. (20)

Princess Zhaojun. Photo courtesy of China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater

SC:  The China Performing Arts Agency has a reputation for featuring the most beautiful costumes and scenery I have ever seen and Princess Zhaojun is no different.  I saw the Soaring Wings production last January and it was stunning.  This show serves as a piece of Chinese history and Princess Zhaojun is a real person who lived during the Han Dynasty.  Please tell me about how you selected and put together the costumes for this show.

YD:  I added proper contemporary interpretation of the piece instead of simply copying and restoring what it looked like in history.  We need to constantly deny ourselves and make textured clothing that can keep abreast of the body language expression of our actors. Taking Zhaojun for example, we have tried to change at least 5-6 kinds of fabrics to make a sample, and the director has even personally tried it on for rehearsal action until the most satisfactory texture and effect comes out.

Artistic creation is neither restoring history nor making things up. We have incorporated more dramatic elements into the traditional Han dynasty clothing, and many of the costumes are inspired by the wooden terracotta figures, Han portrait stones, and bricks portraits in the ancient Han dynasty tombs. At the same time, costumes are endowed with different souls according to the personalities and fates of the characters. For example, the overall cool color of the Han dynasty palace and the warm orange color on the grassland have all indicated the change in the character of the protagonist.

Princess Zhaojun. China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater. (12)

Princess Zhaojun. Photo courtesy of China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater

SC:  What has been the most difficult part of putting this show together and what has been the best part?

The most difficult part is finding the balance between the communication of the main actors’ images and the restriction of their dance movements in single, double, or triple dance.  The most satisfying is the characteristics of each costume are exactly the same as the director’s ideas such as the leashed called dance, free Zigui dance, and bold pouring wax dance full of exotic flavors. Each has its own traits, but together they have a unified style to construct distinctive aesthetic style on the stage.

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SC:  What do you like best about being a costume designer?

YD:  I like the creativity.  I like the feeling of swimming freely in the ocean of creation.

Witness Yang Donglin’s exceptional costume design and experience China National Opera and Dance Drama Theatre’s Princess Zhaojun for one weekend only at the Boch Shubert Theatre at 265 Tremont Street in Boston, MA March 16-17.  Click here for more information and tickets.  Click here for more about China Arts and Entertainment Group and their future productions.

 

REVIEW: Avarice and deceit rule the day as Lyric Stage Company presents Lillian Hellman’s riveting ‘The Little Foxes’

They hunt, fight, and are particularly clever.  Foxes stalk their prey and can strike from dusk till dawn.  Once they pounce, they leave ruin in their wake.

Lillian Hellman’s powerful play, The Little Foxes recently celebrated its 80th anniversary opening on Broadway and the 90th anniversary since the play was first published.  After seeing this production for the first time at the Lyric Stage Company, there is no question why this show possesses such longevity.  It’s an intense, intriguing drama where power is paramount and, given the right players as was done here, never a dull moment.

Directed by award-winning director Scott Edmiston, The Lyric Stage Company of Boston presents Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes through Sunday, March 17 at 140 Clarendon Street in Boston, Massachusetts.  The show is told in three riveting acts.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

The Little Foxes

Lyric Stage Company of Boston presents ‘The Little Foxes’ through March 17 Photo courtesy of The Lyric Stage Company

Taking place during the post-Civil War era at the turn of the century, The Little Foxes depicts a Southern family of means who are never satisfied.  They intend to strike a lucrative deal with Bill Mootos as affluent and distinguished William Marshall, a man who may hold the key to a big payoff.  However, can this family work together or is it every man for himself?

An ornate, brass chandelier, a grand staircase, and detailed glass doors are a just a few of the opulent features of Janie E. Howland’s exquisite set design.  Gail Astrid Buckley’s enthralling costume design boasts ladies adorned in elegant, detailed gowns faithful to the era as gentlemen dress to the nines in coat and tails.  Karen Perlow’s dramatic lighting combined with Scott Emiston’s skillful direction produce a simmering intensity while augmenting the show’s poignant moments.

The Little Foxes Cast

From L to R: Remo Airaldi as Ben, Michael John Ciszewski as Leo, Bill Mootos as William Marshall, Kinson Theodoris as Cal, Anne Gottlieb as Regina, Cheryl D. Singleton as Addie, Rosa Procaccino as Alexandra, and Amelia Broome as Birdie Photo courtesy of Lyric Stage Company

The Little Foxes features a stellar cast, headlined by Anne Gottlieb as sophisticated and aptly named Regina Giddens.  Her charm and shrewdness could give Scarlett O’Hara a run for her money.  Gottlieb’s visibly charming demeanor hides a smoldering callousness, a woman who will sacrifice anything for what she wants.  Her shifty eyes and perfect red lips wind in a smile as she calculates her next move.  Her astonishing scenes with Craig Mathers as wise, ailing Horace Giddens alone is worth the price of admission.

Amelia Broome delivers a moving performance as aristocrat Birdie Hubbard.  Flanked in pearls and ethereal, flowing gowns, Broome, her face taut and wide-eyed, depicts Birdie’s palpable anxiety, a compassionate soul who has seen too much and longs for the past.  She shares a sweet camaraderie with Rosa Procaccino as naïve Alexandra Giddens who Birdie sees so much of herself in her while Birdie’s encounters with Will McGarrahan as Oscar, her unpredictable husband, are gripping.

The Little Foxes Horace and Birdie

From L to R: Remo Airaldi as Ben, Michael John Ciszewski as Leo, Will McGarrahan as Oscar, Amelia Broome as Birdie, Craig Mathers as Horace, and Anne Gottlieb as Regina Photo courtesy of Lyric Stage Company

With a gleeful, audacious laugh, Remo Airaldi delivers a memorable, complex performance as Benjamin Hubbard.  His careful balance between humor and deceit make him intriguing, interacting with each character with ever-changing faces.

After portraying a swaggering, conceited Smee in Hub Theatre Company of Boston’s Peter and the Starcatcher last year, Michael Jon Ciszewski brings his quite fittingly scene-chewing charisma to the smarmy Leo Hubbard.  Cheryl D. Singleton as all-knowing Addie and Kinson Theodoris as Cal are wonderful, delivering some of the show’s most insightful and humorous moments.

What makes The Little Foxes such a fascinating work in the 90 years and counting since it was first presented onstage is its universal truths.  When is enough enough?  In a world of double crosses and scheming to get the lion’s share, when it is enough to be grateful for what you already have?  I guess for some families, the thrill is in the chase.

The Lyric Stage Company continues Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes through Sunday, February 3 at 140 Clarendon Street in Boston, Massachusetts.  Click here for tickets and more information.  Subscriptions and dinner packages are also available.  Follow The Lyric Stage on Twitter and Facebook for their upcoming productions and more.

Mark Morris Dance Group’s costume designer Elizabeth Kurtzman talks vibrant inspiration behind Beatles show, ‘Pepperland’

According to Rolling Stone, The Beatles hit album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band ranked #1 of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time in 2003.  Not only is this groundbreaking album visually compelling, but songs on the album such as Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, With a Little Help from My Friends, Penny Lane, When I’m Sixty-Four, and the album’s popular title track are considered rock and roll classics.

What is it like to bring that album to life in vibrant color in its 50th anniversary year?  New York costume designer Elizabeth Kurtzman talks about what it was like to bring Mark Morris Group, Pepperland to the stage.  Celebrity Series of Boston presents Mark Morris Dance Group’s Pepperland, a tribute to Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, to the Boch Center Shubert Theatre in Boston February 8-10.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

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‘Pepperland’ performance in Seattle. Images by Mat Hayward/Celebrity Series of Boston

Sleepless Critic:  It must be exciting to portray the essence of this classic Beatles album, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in its 50th anniversary year.  Please tell me what your initial thoughts were in taking on this project.

Elizabeth Kurtzman:  I read the email inviting me to work on a project that involved music by the Beatles. I thought I was dreaming and was really intrigued.  Mark Morris and the Beatles are two of my favorite things.  I could not imagine how it would all look and sound. I knew it would not be by-the-book –Beatles and it had to be turned around pretty quickly.

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‘Pepperland’ performance in Seattle. Images by Mat Hayward/Celebrity Series of Boston

The 60s brought rapidly changing style. There is a lot of information in the years the Beatles made all that music, so there were a lot of possibilities.

SC:  You have worked with the Mark Morris Dance Group numerous times.  How was this project a unique experience for you and what do you like most about working with them? I know it might have been a challenge to tie in a contemporary feel to such an iconic time period.

EK:  They look great in these clothes/costumes and wish the guys wore these suits all the time.  They are a dream and it isn’t easy to dance in layers made out of corduroy.

Some of Mark’s pieces require more research than others. I spent hours looking up fashion and color from 1960-69. Mark was not interested in dressing the dancers in satin and feathers a la the album cover. It was more about trying to send the message of the early sixties. Simple shapes, but those shapes looked new, fresh, and young. Colored tights were so futuristic and men’s suits got smaller and cuter. I was a kid mid-sixties, but was completely mesmerized by those clothes.

Color was just as important as shape. Colors were new, synthetic fabrics made bolder, brighter fabrics available. The color palette was loosely based on a photo of a mural painted on a corner on Carnaby Street in London.

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‘Pepperland’ performance in Seattle Images by Mat Hayward/Celebrity Series of Boston

SC:  Songs like With A Little Help From My Friends, When I’m Sixty-Four, and the title track are just a few of the songs portrayed visually onstage.  What was that process like and can you offer a hint of the vibe audiences can expect when they see the show?

EK:  I think the show is about the energy of the time which offers a lot of happiness with a little melancholy thrown in.

SC:  From what I have seen of your work, you seem to add a vibrant personality to the performers that take the stage.  The colors and designs really pop.

The dancers are so game and energetic, the color and design only enhance their skill.  I love working with fabric and color and am fortunate to be able to attend rehearsals, which is where I get to see the personality of the dance and how the dancers move.

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‘Pepperland’ performance in Seattle. Images by Mat Hayward/Celebrity Series of Boston

 SC:  What has been the most challenging work you have done in New York or otherwise?

EK:  I can’t say there is one thing I’ve worked on that stands out as most challenging. There are always a few little challenges, but always a way to overcome them. It is more challenging working with small theatre companies that have tiny budgets and lots of costume changes or working with opera singers who hate the way they look in any and everything.  The biggest challenge is sewing it myself.

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‘Pepperland’ performance in Liverpool Images by Robbie Jack/Celebrity Series of Boston

SC:  You also provide art and music for programs for children in New York City.  Please tell me more about that and how you got involved.

Several years ago, I was involved with the Children’s Museum of the Arts downtown. I was determined to get kids to design and repurpose their clothes. Most of the adults I know do not know how to sew on a button.

I helped put together a program for children on the autism spectrum and their families that provided a place for making great art and music.  I also spent many hours designing and making costumes for the theatre department at my daughter’s high school who graduated in 2017.

Celebrity Series of Boston presents Mark Morris Group, Pepperland, at the Boch Center Shubert Theatre in Boston from February 8-10.  Click here for more information and for tickets. Tickets can also be obtained at the Celebrity Series of Boston’s box office.  Follow Celebrity Series of Boston on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

REVIEW: Lively and insightful, Lyric Stage Company’s award-winning play, ‘The Wolves’ howls

Woven into the lush, green indoor turf is a unique narrative with the clever earmarks of adolescence in Sara DeLappe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play finalist, The Wolves.  Framed as a soccer match, this unconventional ensemble drama kicks off like a rocket, luring the audience into the tumultuous chattering of a competitive, all-girls soccer team who are about to learn a few valuable lessons about life and themselves in and out of the game.

Directed by A. Nora Long, Lyric Stage Company’s The Wolves continues through Sunday, February 3 at 140 Clarendon Street in Boston.  The show is 90 minutes with no intermission and contains some mature themes.    Click here for more information and tickets.

The Wolves play

Photo courtesy of The Lyric Stage Company of Boston

Taking place entirely in an indoor soccer arena, Shelley Barish and Elizabeth Cahill’s exciting setting fits into the team’s boundless energy.  Sports fans take note:  Trained by soccer consultant Olivia Levine, The Wolves are the real deal, showing off authentic as well as physically complex moves throughout the performance.

What makes this show particularly interesting is the remarkable way the story is told.  With a 90 minute running time matching the length of an average soccer match, a horn blaring not only kicks off the latest match within the performance, but sometimes humorously ties in to interrupt a heated conversation.  As the audience as spectators peek into this team’s lives, the progressive nature in which they learn discipline, tolerance, and how to listen to each other is subtle, yet one of the most powerful parts of this compelling narrative.

The Wolves with orange slices

Cast consists of Lydia Barnett-Mulligan, Sarah Elizabeth Bedard, Simone Black, Olivia Z. Cote, Chelsea Evered, Grace Experience, Julia Lennon, Valerie Terranova, and Jurielle Whitney Photo courtesy of Lyric Stage Company

These teammates have a natural and at times, rumbling chemistry in their uninhibited conversations.  Whether they are delving into gossip around school, technology, getting their driver’s permits or scandalized by their maturing bodies, their viewpoints stay consistent with their level of maturity (right down to the abuse of the word, “like”) which can sometimes be insightful and other times, hilarious.

Though each cast member exhibits their own distinct personality in their matching uniforms, Valerie Terranova, who is making her debut on the Lyric Stage with this show, is a particular highlight as serious, optimistic player #25.  The wise, unassuming way she leads the team shows that while the other girls may only see what is right in front of them, #25 sees where the game might take them, united, one victory at a time.

 

The Wolves may even serve as a nostalgic trip down memory lane, when you were a teenager and everything was the best thing in the world or the worst, the raging excitement of life.  It may even leave you scratching your head, trying to recall if being a teenager girl was really like this.  The undeniable answer, for the most part, was yes.

The Lyric Stage Company continues Sara DeLappe’s The Wolves through Sunday, February 3 at 140 Clarendon Street in Boston, Massachusetts.  Click here for tickets and more information.  Subscriptions and dinner packages are also available.  Follow The Lyric Stage on Twitter and Facebook for their upcoming productions and more.

After a night out, enjoy MET Bar and Grill’s ‘Boston Hot Chocolate Experience’

The holidays may be over, but any time during the winter is a good time for hot chocolate.  The MET Grill and Bar brings back their popular refreshment, ‘Boston Hot Chocolate Experience’ through Valentine’s Day.  With a wide variety of hot chocolate available in ‘adult versions’ topped with extra large marshmallows, whipped cream, and more, it is a special treat at the end of a concert or a great night out.

‘Boston Hot Chocolate Experience’ is offered at MET Bar and Grill locations in Natick and Back Bay in Boston, Massachusetts.  Click here for more information.

Hot chocolate options include Classic Hot Chocolate featuring vanilla chocolate and whipped cream, Spiced Mexican with chili and grated Mexican chocolate, Dolce De Leche with marshmallows and salted caramel, and Peppermint White Hot Chocolate featuring candy cane flavors and whipped cream.  Each treat can be enhanced with Peppermint Liquor, Caramel Vodka, Bailey’s, and more.

Enjoy them as ‘A Flight of Four’ experience featuring four miniature glasses or attendees can order one flavor as ‘One Big One’ presentation.

Visit MET Back Bay in Boston and in Natick, Massachusetts.  MET offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner as well as Saturday and Sunday Brunch. They also are available for private events and gift cards are available online for the perfect gift.

REVIEW: WGBH’s ‘Tis the Night with Ben Folds and Friends’ holiday music special offers some impressive, lighthearted cheer

Ben Folds, award-winning lead singer of Ben Folds Five, rang in the holiday season with some of Boston’s most renowned performers as he hosted Tis the Night with Ben Folds and Friends which has been featured on WGBY Public TelevisionNew Hampshire PBS, and WGBH 2 this month.  Ben has collaborated with many acclaimed artists in his over 20-year career including Regina Spektor, William Shatner, Tori Amos, and Weezer.  He is also known for performing with many orchestras throughout the world.  Take a closer look at Tis the Night here,  click here to find out when WGBH will broadcast this show next, or here to stream it online.

In this WGBH holiday special, Ben hosts for the most part, leaving it to renowned Boston choruses such as the Boston Children’s Chorus, Handel and Haydn Society, the Harvard- Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, and students from the New England Conservatory to bring in the good cheer.  However, in the few times he collaborated with the artists, this concert special became that much more engaging.

Ben Folds and Caleb Teicher perform on Tis the Night (Meredith Nierman - WGBH)

Ben Folds and Caleb Teicher perform on ‘Tis the Night’ Photo courtesy of Meredith Nierman/WGBH

Tis the Night with Ben Folds and Friends offered a selection of well-known holiday songs done in new, insightful ways.  Surrounded by blue festive lights and illuminated snowflakes, Tis the Night opened fittingly with I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day sung warmly by the Boston Children’s Chorus, dressed in red scarves and multicolored shirts as Ben Folds looks on.

Handel and Haydn orchestra and chorus perform on Tis the Night (Meredith Nierman - WGBH)2

Handel and Haydn orchestra and chorus perform on ‘Tis the Night’ Photo courtesy of Meredith Nierman/WGBH 

Handel and Haydn’s Society took on three memorable choruses from Handel’s Messiah, which was a lighthearted take from the classic version.  It was refreshing to hear, though I prefer the classic interpretation.  However, the Handel and Haydn Society’s uplifting, angelic harmony was no less impressive, ending on a triumphant note.

Ben Folds took a break from hosting to join NYC choreographer Caleb Teicher for a catchy version of Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth.  They were accompanied by New England Conservatory student guitarist Andres Orco-Zerpa and student bassist Tyler Wagner.  Affectionately calling Caleb’s tapping “drumming for your feet,” Ben Folds drummed while singing a duet with Caleb, whose freestyle tapping got more remarkable as the beat escalated.

Harvard Radcliffe Collegium Musicum performs in Tis the Night (Sam Brewer - WGBH) (1)

Harvard Radcliffe Collegium Musicum performs in ‘Tis the Night’ Photo courtesy of Sam Brewer/WGBH 2

Conducted by Music Director Andrew Clark, The Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum was a particular highlight.  Their peaceful, silvery vocals enriched their first number, In the Bleak Midwinter as picturesque scenes were shown of new fallen snow topped on trees and covered in fields. Sung entirely acapella, that captivating number was followed by a few more impressive classic Christmas carols.

New England Conservatory student jazz vocalist Darynn Dean, decked out in a shimmering dress and accompanied by student pianist Matthew Thompson, delivered a jazz-infused, airy version of Jingle Bells. Darynn’s agile vocals scat and soared while Matthew’s lighthearted piano solo created an exhilarating medley.

vocalist Darynn Dean and pianist Matthew Thomson perform Jingle Bells on Tis the Night (Sam Brewer - WGBH)2

Vocalist Darynn Dean and pianist Matthew Thomson perform Jingle Bells on ‘Tis the Night’ Photo courtesy of Sam Brewer/WGBH 

Under an illuminated starlit sky, New England Conservatory student soprano Saori Erickson accompanied by student pianist Bethany Pietroniro performed a gorgeous, emotionally-rich version of Ave Maria.

soprano Saori Erickson and pianist Bethany Pietroniro performing Ave Maria (Sam Brewer - WGBH)

Soprano Saori Erickson and pianist Bethany Pietroniro performing ‘Ave Maria’ Photo courtesy of Sam Brewer/WGBH

Ending on a bright, inviting note with Ben Folds, the Boston Children’s Chorus, and Caleb Teicher collaborating on We Wish You a Merry Christmas, Tis the Night offered a few great reasons why the holiday season is the most wonderful time of the year.