Building Tradition: A Christmas Cabaret

December 8, 2018

Creating a tradition requires a solid foundation, or two. 

Sponsored by Blockade Runner Beach Resort. 

Opera House Theatre Company and Blockade Runner have more than a few things in common. To start, both are Wilmington staples, each has been family-owned and operated for more than 30 years, and each unfailingly advocates for the arts and lends unfettered support to local artistic talent.

It Takes Two

But, there’s something more. They also both have a knack, of sorts, for creating tradition. Yet, something altogether different from the sometimes stodgy, hundreds-of-years-old sense of the word that we’re most familiar with. Both entities have added a subtle, vibrant spin to an old concept; a quietly innovative, but comfortable, necessary, and fitting addition to the existing culture that locals not only accept, but take great pride in and flock to.

The Blockade Runner, for instance. There are beach hotels, and then, there’s the Blockade Runner – a generational summer vacation tradition for hundreds of families, and a favorite brunch, dinner, and event spot for locals. The resort hotel is the destination for many visitors; it’s surroundings, the amenities. And, one could write paragraphs explaining why.

Then, there’s the Opera House Theatre Company, enter stage left. Opera House was founded in the early 80s by uber-talented, infamously foul-mouthed, and graciously committed actor and director, Lou Criscuolo, and his wife Mary James Morgan Cricuolo. In support of Thalian Hall, Opera House was designed to produce Broadway musicals using hand-picked local performers, and set and costume designers during Thalian’s summer off-season.

Since its inception, Opera House has been the first to discover nationally-recognized talent, and is known across the country, and in most area homes, for its performances. It has helped put Wilmington on the map as a theatre destination.

And, so the The Blockade Runner and Opera House Theatre Company naturally merge. Every year. And, as a result, yet another tradition has been created: The Christmas Cabaret.

A New Holiday Tradition

The 9th Annual Hark the Herald Angels Swing, directed by Ray Kennedy, is a raucous but reverent spin on a traditional Christmas celebration.

“It’s this fabulous, lively, funny, intimate Christmas event that lots of people don’t even know about, but it’s still sold out every year,” said Michelle Braxton, designated first act and auctioneer. “And, the food at Blockade Runner is just ridiculously good. Jessica Cabo is one of the finest chefs in Wilmington. Seriously.”

Talent, Discovered

Braxton is the perfect Opera House case study. Ray Kennedy, Opera House Company director, choreographer and lifelong friend of Braxton’s, just “called her up one day” a few years ago, and said, “I need your help.” Braxton, a vocalist and humorist, had been out of the scene for years, busy raising a family in Fuquay Varina.

“Ray said I just had to take the role. He said that I was born for it. And, while I was super-nervous, his enthusiasm got me excited. So, I asked my husband about taking off to Wilmington for four or five weeks, and when he said yes, so did I, without even asking what the role was.” She said. “And, suddenly I was Mona Stangley in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas!” Braxton said, with a laugh. She went on to win the 2012 Star News Best Newcomer Award for her performance.

The show kickstarted her career. And, Braxton now travels the country performing at various venues as a humorist and vocalist. She performs on Wilmington stages and others as often as she can.

“That’s just what Ray does,” she said. “He knows a performer before they even know they can perform.”

Joy Gregory, a Christmas Cabaret first-timer this year, is another great example of Kennedy’s knack for hand-picking talent.

“I was new to Wilmington,” Gregory said. “And, I just knew I had to get back to theatre.” More of a singer than a dancer, Gregory dove into her very first Wilmington audition for Smoky Joe’s Cafe in tennis shoes and sweat pants alongside women in ballet shoes and leotards. “I didn’t think I stood a chance,” she said. Kennedy not only chose her, but would continue to choose her for subsequent award-winning roles. Gregory recently left her career in counseling to dedicate her working life to theatre. She’s now the music director of the North Charleston Performing Arts Center in Charleston, SC.

“Joy was in that first show with me,” Braxton said. “And, before I met her, Ray told me not to worry. He said, ‘When this girl gets here, it’s going to flow like hot butter on a biscuit.’ And, he was right. It always does.”

And, then, there’s JJ Niemann, the Elon College graduate turned Broadway actor all in the span of a few days. Niemann was a constant in Thalian Hall productions as a teenager, and he credits Kennedy for assuring his parents that he had what it takes. Just 4 days after graduation this year, Niemann proved Kennedy right. He was cast in the Broadway show, The Book of Mormon, on May 24th.

Niemann has been on stage and in full Christmas spirit for past Cabarets, but is bound to New York this year, preparing for his debut performance on Broadway.

The Show Must Go On

Evening performances of Hark the Herald Angels Swing IX are Saturday, December 16th and Sunday, December 17th, with cocktails at 6 pm and a prix fixe dinner at 7 pm. A live auction will follow intermission. And, all performances will include a silent auction. Sunday’s matinee performance starts with cocktails at noon, followed by brunch at 12:30pm. Prepare to sing along while you dine!

“The Cabaret showcases all the amazing talent we have here,” Braxton said. “People come from Eastern NC, Raleigh, and all the way from New York for this show. You really don’t want to miss this one.”

Click here for more information about the event, and to request accommodations, or call 910.256.7109 to reserve a table.


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