Christmas with the Carpenters

In an emerging music scene of heavy metal becoming more mainstream after years in the shadows in the ’70s and ’80s, an unexpected turn on the landscape saw a new sound taking rock in a totally opposite direction. While Ozzy Osbourne was making serious noise on both sides of the pond with Black Sabbath, brother and sister duo, Karen and Richard Carpenter were also making noise of their own—but with a softer approach.
The era was punctuated heavily by the Carpenters’ music as they churned out hit song after hit song. However, their music wasn’t just at the top of charts, their music was a pivotal part of people’s personal lives.
“We’ve Only Just Begun” was the repeated theme for kids all over the country graduating from high school and college. That song was played at wedding receptions, as were many of the Carpenters’ ballads like “Close To You,” throughout the years.
For 14 years, their distinctive soft musical style broke records like no others. With Richard as the creative force behind their sound as an accomplished keyboard player, composer and arranger and Karen’s rich, lilting melodic vocals, they had a run of hit recordings on the American Top 40 and Adult Contemporary charts, making them the leading sellers in the soft rock, easy listening and adult contemporary genres at a time when contemporary music was dominated by heavy guitar riffs and pounding drum beats. The Carpenters had three No. 1 singles and five No. 2 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 and 15 No. 1 hits on the Adult Contemporary chart.
Unfortunately, the Carpenter’s success was cut short with Karen’s passing in 1983.
However, their music continues to live on in a tribute show returning to Laughlin with a holiday twist this time. Last year producer Mark Brett and his wife Michelle Berting Brett brought their show “We’ve only Just Begun” —Carpenters Remembered,” to the Riverside Resort for the first time. The show packed an emotional and powerful punch that was both respectful and classy. The show was met with high marks so this time the duo brings “Merry Christmas Darling” to Don’s Celebrity Theatre stage.
Once again, we talked with Michelle Berting Brett about the Carpenters, the music and the show they bring to town this time. Here’s her take…

Talk about your holiday themed show this time.
Brett: It does have a holiday twist and the truth is so many people tell us that it doesn’t feel like Christmas until one of those Carpenters’ albums goes on the stereo. Indeed, it’s a great season for us to do our shows because, of course, Carpenters’ albums still are played every single year and I believe Christmas Portrait charted in the Billboard Top 100 a couple of years. in 2014 and ’15, or ’15 and ’16. It’s pretty amazing because you know they were recorded over 40 years ago.

How does the holiday show go over with audiences?
Brett: It’s great. Last year we had 10 shows during our holiday tour, this year we’ve got 19, so we’re busier and really sort of getting started there in Laughlin with the holiday tour. We’re looking forward to having five nights there. We had a great time last year. We’ll be there for Thanksgiving, which will be fun. We had a great time last year. Oh my gosh, we met so many nice people. I have to tell you, for the band always traveling and getting on and off airplanes, in and out of buses and all the rest of it, to actually be in one place for five nights and perform and get good rest and eat good food, it’s such a pleasure.

How do you balance the show with holiday tunes and hits people expect to hear?
Brett: People should definitely know it’s our holiday show, but we still have that wonderful songbook of Karen and Richard’s hits. What we’ve done is we do some of the full songs and then we’ve put some medleys together. So they kind of get a sprinkling of everything. You’re not going to get out of town without doing songs like “Close to You,” “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” and “Yesterday Once More,” people really want to hear those. But of course, we’ve got those beautiful Christmas songs, like “Merry Christmas Darling,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” and “Sleigh Ride,” and so many classic tunes.

“Merry Christmas Darling” has special meaning for you because it was the start of your tribute show, correct?
Brett: Yes, it really was. You’re so right. Because it was such a favorite song of mine, I had recorded it for my parents, and played it for Mark, our producer and my now husband, when we first met after Christmas and he just loved it so much. That was when I told him, my dream was always to do a Carpenters’ show, and he said, “Let’s do it.” So here we are. It’s amazing to me. This is actually our fifth season doing the holiday show. I can’t believe it. That’s really my favorite thing about Christmas — Christmas trees and Christmas songs.

New elements?
Brett: You’ll hear a couple of new things in some of the medleys. We do a huge hits medley, and then we do a ’60s medley, as well. So there are a few songs in there that are absolute classics that the audience just goes crazy for. People always associate the Carpenters with ballads, but they had such a huge catalogue of songs and so many that are uptempo, so definitely there’s something for everyone in the show. If you’re coming to hear Christmas, you’re gonna get Christmas. If you’re coming to hear emotional ballads, you’re gonna get emotional ballads, and if you want to come and hear some music that’s gonna make you want to get up and dance, you’re gonna hear that too.

People also seem to have a personal connection to the songs.
Brett: The cool thing, too, because the Carpenters’ music does have that emotional element — and because so many people had these songs as their wedding songs or their graduation themes and different things like that — everybody has so many wonderful stories associated with their songs. For many people Carpenters’ music is like a balm for the soul. You hear these songs and they bring back good memories, and about family, love ones, relationships, it’s pretty cool. We hear the most amazing stories. People will tell us about having dated someone when they were in high school and reconnecting many years later and then they’ll be at the concert, right? “This was our song and here we are,” they’ll say. I always love those stories.

Do you want to mention your players?
Brett: We’ve got our wonderful seven-piece band, based out of Nashville. Our music is directed by Harry Sharpe and Harry was the music director for artists like Donna Summer, Wynonna Judd, Tanya Tucker, Olivia Newton John, Heart, and so many great artists. So he’s at the helm, and plays keyboards. We’ve got a great rhythm section, drums, bass, guitar and we’ve got a wonderful pianist on the grand piano, playing the Richard Carpenter’s part, and reeds player who doubles on a few different things—flute, clarinet, tenor sax, and soprano sax. We also have a background singer (Michelle Brook)who does the ’60s medley with me. They’re all such talented musicians, every one of them is a bonafide star, a super great musician, has a long pedigree in the business and does such a good job bringing this songbook to life. You’ve heard these songs on CDs, or a record player, or the 8-track tape, remember those? But when all of a sudden you hear those beautiful live instruments on stage making that sound, I just think it’s such a magical thing. I still get chills, five years later, when I hear it. It’s a privilege to sing songs that have such beautiful lyrics and such great melodies. It’s a singer’s dream, I’m telling you. Really, I am a lucky gal.

What makes your tribute different?
Brett: So many times when you are doing a show that pays tribute to an artist, people can sort of think of it as just a knock-off. We have really had the honor of playing in some of the most beautiful performing arts centers, and casino showrooms, with multiple engagements in Las Vegas, and now we have the opportunity to come back to Laughlin to the Riverside. To really be taken very seriously and we’ve been given so much respect and beautiful accolades says a lot to us. I just think it’s one of those things when you play great music, when you have the chance to do it, you just can’t lose. It’s just the quality of these songs, the emotion of them, people are so connected to them, and they want to hear the music. The thing too, the Carpenters’ fans, in particular Karen’s fans, are so devoted to her and her memory and I think that to me to have those fans come to our shows is really is the icing on the cake, because they have such a love for her and a devotion for her.
We see it when they talk to us after the shows, and they’re very emotional. They’re crying after the shows and this music and these songs mean so much to them. Back in those days when I was dreaming about doing a Carpenters’ show, I always thought the best part of it would be singing the songs, and the music, but truly, the best part of it has been the people that we’ve met and the stories that we’ve heard, it’s incredible.
There have been so many neat surprises that have gone along with this journey, it’s been great.


Don’s Celebrity Theatre within the Riverside

Wednesday-Sunday, Nov. 22-26 (7 p.m.)

See Showtimes for tickets