By Alexandria Rappe
The Heart of Christmas Show is Fayetteville’s own holiday benefit performance. Directed and founded by Laura Stevens, a vocal performance coach and piano instructor throughout the year, The Heart of Christmas Show features Voices of the Heart, the award-winning Fayetteville teenage Christian vocal group directed by Stevens, and a cast of 32 other singers and dancers who range in ages from five to eighteen years old. The singers, dancers, set designers and parents behind the scenes are all volunteers who do what they do because they love the show and its mission to donate 100% of ticket sales to Fayetteville charities helping sick and abused children in need. Over the years, The Heart of Christmas Show has raised over $675,000, supporting the Falcon Children’s Home, Child Advocacy Center, Cape Fear Valley Health’s Foundation Friends of Children and Autism Society, to name a few. “That’s a tremendous amount of good with that money,” Stevens said.
In 2011, The Heart of Christmas Show was listed in Life:Beautiful Magazine as “one of the best Christmas performances in the country,” and the The Heart of Christmas Show picture was the featured image for the magazine spread. Stevens couldn’t believe it. “To see little old Fayetteville next to big cities like Nashville, Tennessee; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Branson, Missouri; Sacramento, California and Dallas, Texas, was a pretty big deal. It blew my mind. It was very humbling.”
Christmas year round
A show of this caliber requires pure dedication which means the holiday season begins early for everyone involved. In the months of September, October and November, cast members sacrifice their Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for a full day of rehearsals. For Stevens, it is “Christmas all year long.” She is always planning, researching and making one-of-a-kind Christmas tracks with Milton Smith, a local orchestrator, in her studio at home for the show.
The three Heart of Christmas show performances take place right after Thanksgiving. For the young students in her cast, Stevens takes advantage of the Thanksgiving holiday and the days off from school for more rehearsals before the show. Like we said, pure dedication. This year two performances will take place on November 26th and one on November 27th. “It’s a good weekend to kick off the Christmas season,” Stevens said. Year after year, when the show is over, Stevens believes Christmas can officially begin.
This is the 18th year of The Heart of Christmas Show, which started with one idea Stevens had in 1999. Stevens entered Voices of the Heart in a national competition at the Alabama Theater. She was nervous and uncertain, not about the girl’s abilities, but because they were in competition against adults. She whispered, “Lord, show me,” and, well, Voices of the Heart won the competition. Stevens told the girls, “This means nothing if you can’t do something good with it.”
And by “good” she meant giving back. “I wanted to make a difference in children’s lives.” The original plan was to perform one benefit show. Stevens had two sponsors. The theme would center around Christmas and the money would go to local charities helping sick and abused children. Remembering the first show, Stevens laughed, “It was a Charlie Brown Christmas tree compared to today.”
The show, raised from scratch, is now a success. The original two sponsors have grown into over 300. “People were wary because they know how hard it can be in this city and in this market to create something, but once they saw what we do and what we say, more and more people came on board.”
An audience in awe
And Stevens knew the point when it all changed. It was a “marked moment.”
“It was about five or six years ago,” she said. “It was the last song. It was the finale. Usually, because of traffic in the parking lot or for whatever reasons, people start leaving. They get up and out of their seats even though it’s not over yet. The finale was finishing—it’s a big number—you can tell when it’s almost over—but no one was leaving. There was this feeling in the air.”
Stevens takes a minute to wipe her eyes.
“I asked my sound crew, ‘Do you see that?’ and they nodded. Every single person in the audience stayed. The song closed and people were cheering and cheering for these children. It was a standing ovation. They were applauding throughout the curtain calls and they waited until the last child took their bow. It has been that way ever since. Fayetteville has completely wrapped its arms around this show and the children.”
Act One & Act Two
The show is divided in two. The first act is full of usual Christmas fun with silliness, upbeat scenes and festive costumes. Santa and Mrs. Clause make an appearance and so does Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. The cast dresses up as toy soldiers and special appearances also include ones from the Grinch, Mary Poppins, Elvis Presley and even Frozen’s star, Elsa, in all of her icy glory.
But when talking about the latter part of the show, it takes Stevens a minute to put her words together. “The second part…is special,” she states, “special because it centers on the nativity of Jesus Christ. It is breathtakingly beautiful.” Traditionally, in the show the newborn baby Jesus with Mary and Joseph happens to be a real infant. One year Santa walked out holding hands with two children and bowed to the Savior. “It’s a humbling moment, and to have the infant be real brings what happened thousands of years ago home all the more.”
Home is where we all want to be during the holidays. One may not be physically home while watching the show, but then again you are. You are right beside the people that make up your “home.” Your friends. Your family members. Your neighbors.
Stevens loves that WC Powers of Powers Swain Chevrolet calls The Heart of Christmas Show “the CPR of Christmas.” She laughs recalling a memory that has stayed with her over all the years: “One time an elderly man came up to me after the show and said, ‘This is the only show my wife drags me to and I don’t fall asleep.’ Now that’s wonderful.”
She continues, “There’s something here for everyone. We want everyone to experience every element of Christmas and we want you leaving here feeling complete.”
Close as family
It’s obvious cast members are at “home” among their peers and their family members and even on stage. “We call it the Heart Of Christmas family,” Stevens explains. Parents spend Saturdays and take off work for a week to help. Fathers help build props. The crew backstage does everything from gluing sequins to figuring out how steam comes out of a train to getting pizza delivered. They cry together, laugh together and pray together. “It’s a very strong bond,” Stevens said. “We’re never eaten up by anything.”
The Heart of Christmas Show cast understands the spirit of giving. Stevens says that it is already within each one of her cast members.
There is also a strong bond between the girls Stevens handpicks to become members of Voices of the Heart. This year Voices of the Heart consists of Logan Hallas, Randie Autry, Schyler Ivey, Lauren Hallas and Hailey Speicher. Both these girls and The Heart of Christmas Show cast members learn at an early age about doing good. “They know it is all about love. The audience can feel that.”
Plus, Stevens credits time spent on stage as beneficial for both children and young adults. In addition to gaining lifelong friends, improving their social skills and gaining early confidence, as adults Stevens sees them giving back and becoming even more confident individuals. “To have something to latch onto and focus on and to have purpose [at such a young age] serves them well. They are not afraid to be on stage and brings out the best they can be.”
And they grow up within the cast. Most children come in and don’t leave until they are 18 years old. “Most leave because they age out,” Stevens said. But she noted, “Once they enter, they metamorphosis into something amazing.”
When not rehearsing, members of the cast have the privilege of performing at Cumberland County schools and presenting checks to charities and organizations. “They literally see where ticket money goes and does,” Stevens emphasizes.
Faith & hope
Stevens’s journey has been a walk of faith, always letting go and letting God. “And God has always provided. When challengers arise—and every year there is a new challenge—it’s a sure and concrete thing to rely on.”
But it has also been a hopeful journey. One year, a cast member, wearing her Heart Of Christmas Show shirt, walked into a McDonald’s. Recognizing the shirt, the cashier shared that she had seen the show and it changed her life and she started going to church.
“That right there is a reminder you don’t know what people are going through in their lives, but you do know what you’re doing is good and you offer every single audience member hope.”
One year the cast did a number to the song, “The Christmas Shoes” by NewSong, a Christian music group. For those who are not familiar, the song is sung from the perspective of a man buying last minute gifts witnessing a young boy trying to buy a pair of shoes for his dying mother. In the end, the man purchases the shoes for the little boy. In the show, at the end of the scene, angels danced around a husband as he held his wife.
Stevens understands the holidays can be difficult. “There’s sadness and losses, but there’s hope and there’s love. It’s a chance to share faith on a level without making people feel guilty. We are here to share the light of Jesus. We want to remind people to love one another. There’s real hope and there’s something better.” She said, simply, “We are Christmas.”
“I don’t forget the mission of this,” Stevens reiterates. “It’s about our community, and it’s working. It’s not just a show, but a show with a purpose.”
The Heart of Christmas Show performances will be at the Crown Center Theatre Saturday, November 26th at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. and Sunday November 27th at 3 p.m. For more information visit heartofchristmasshow.com or check out their Facebook page. Tickets are $14.00 online or $18.00 at the door.