She’s appeared on Broadway in Michael Bennett’s “Dream Girls,” Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” and Kurt Weill’s “Three Penny Opera.” She’s graced the Alliance Theatre stage with her one-woman show “Ethel.” But nothing could properly prepare singer and actress Terry Burrell for flirting with a 123-foot long, 100-ton Argentinosaurus at Atlanta’s Fernbank Museum of Natural History, one of the wonderfully entertaining sequences in her new streaming Alliance Theatre holiday show, “A Very Terry Christmas.”
“I mean, what other song do you sing to a dinosaur other than ‘You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch?’” says Burrell, laughing. “Here I am flirting with him trying to offer him a hot dog from The Varsity and he turns a diva down! Turns out, he was an herbivore and was not having it!”
The scene is one of 14 shot at iconic Atlanta locations featured in the streaming show Burrell calls “a love letter to the city.” The idea to transform Burrell’s scheduled Alliance Hertz Theatre Christmas show into a streaming opportunity for Alliance Theatre supporters waiting out the COVID quarantine at home this year, is just one of the ways the theater is creatively pivoting during the pandemic.
In addition to Fernbank, the show was shot inside and around multiple Atlanta attractions (with coordinating song selections, of course), including the First Congregational Church, the College Football Hall of Fame, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and the Center for Puppetry Arts, where Burrell sings to Stan the Lovesick Snowman, a charismatic co-star who happens to be made of felt.
In many ways, “A Very Terry Christmas” is reminiscent of the vintage TV specials where Sammy, Bing or Ella would magically show up at Sinatra’s swinging pad (complete with the Nelson Riddle orchestra) and share a glass of eggnog, a song, a couple of costume changes and a quip or three. But in our current pandemic, Burrell’s show was shot in only four days observing all COVID public health recommendations with a bunch of theater pros, hitting their marks and wasting no time.
In her note to Alliance Theatre goers in the show’s digital program, Alliance artistic director Susan Booth (who also serves as the show’s script writer, director and choreographer on two numbers) says shooting a short film in 14 locations wasn’t exactly easy. But, “if you want to juggle the demands of whale sharks, Varsity customers, celebrity puppets and — yes — a rhinoceros named Mumbles, you should totally do so with Terry Burrell.”
The feeling is very much mutual. “Susan Booth is the smartest person in the room,” says Burrell. “Every day, I marveled that we were pulling this off. I’ve been working with some of these people at the Alliance for 20 years now. We’re family. Plus, we were all so grateful to be working right now.”
And Burrell deliciously digs into the script’s diva persona who “shrinks” her jazz trio of musical director/pianist Tyrone Jackson, drummer Quinton “Q” Robinson, and bassist Ramon Pooser into a snow globe, is driven around in a luxury Lexus while knocking back a martini and barking orders at her virtual assistant, Elaine (also voiced by Booth). “While we were filming at The Varsity, her walk just came over me,” says Burrell, laughing. “It was very stagey and ridiculous. What made it even funnier was when Susan had a piece of direction to go over with me, she would walk like the character!”
Burrell and Booth even recruited the star’s real-life singing sisters — Carrie Harrison, Priscilla Burrell, Debye Burrell-Cleveland — to record backing vocals and video so they could float around her head as Terry performs the Jimmy Buffett classic “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” her ode to Atlanta’s iconic “What’ll you have?” emporium.
“A Very Terry Christmas” is available to stream through the end of the year. And unlike the stage work she’s devoted her career to, this holiday show will live on as a video postcard of Christmas 2020.
“If anyone comes across this in the years to come, I hope it brings them a sense of joy,” says Burrell. “And hopefully, it lets people know that in the midst of all of this chaos, people were able to find a way. Artists were able to pivot and find a way to create and make a statement and continue to entertain others.”
The Alliance Theatre’s streaming production of “A Very Terry Christmas” starring Terry Burrell is available to download and watch for $20 through Dec. 31. Go to the Alliance website for more information.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.