Dancing in a Winter Wonderland: Aljaž and Janette return to celebrate love, kindness, family and Christmas

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Aljaž and Janette – Dancing in a Winter Wonderland: Aljaž Škorjanec and Janette Manrara (co-creators and choreography) and Company (Miranda Wilford, Adrian Hansel [featured singers], Robbie Kmetoni, Faye Huddleston [lead partners], Kiera Brunton, Jack Dargen, Kate Kenrick, George Michaelides, Tony Scott-Obene, Rose Wild [ensemble]), Gareth Walker (show director and choreographer), Coldwell (associate director and assistant chorographer), Matt Howes (musical director), Doug FF Cairns (set and lighting designer), Ryan Howard (screen content). Cliffs Pavilion, Southend-on-Sea, 1.12.2023. (JPr)

Aljaž Škorjanec and Janette Manrara © Fiona Whyte for The TCB Group

Christmas came as early as July this year for Slovenian dancer Aljaž Škorjanec and Cuban-American Janette Manrara with the biggest possible present of all, the birth of their first child, a daughter Lyra Rose. As Aljaž is quoted in the glossy tour programme as saying, ‘We waited so long for Lyra, now we have her and it’s the best feeling in the world.’ Some of the first words we hear from Aljaž are ‘This is not just the best time of the year, it’s our favourite time of the year, because it’s time to celebrate love, kindness and family’ to which Janette responded ‘And speaking of family we are too excited to not go straight in everybody, Aljaž and I just became parents.’ I suspect everyone in the Cliffs Pavilion were as delighted about this happy event as these immensely popular dancers are about it themselves, and naturally Lyra was never far from their thoughts throughout the show.

Aljaž and Janette remain immensely popular even though they no longer appear on Strictly Come Dancing where they first gained wider public attention and married during their time on the show. Janette of course now hosts Strictly’s sister show It Takes Two on BBC Two a couple of nights a week. It was five years ago when I first saw them live in their Fred Astaire tribute, Remembering Fred, at the London Palladium and described it as an ’absolute joy’; and then after the pandemic watched them this time last year at the Cliffs Pavilion during their A Christmas to Remember tour when I wrote ‘Triple threat is becoming an overused term these days but can be applied to Aljaž and Janette because not only are they engaging and funny, but they also dance and sing too.’ In a tongue-in-cheek, mildly risqué remark from Janette she describes Aljaž as ‘a quadruple threat’ but I will leave to find out what she means by that if you are yet to see the show.

Don’t get me wrong there is nothing to fear from bringing the whole family to see Dancing in a Winter Wonderland as a way of kickstarting the leadup to all the festivities at the end of December. It is like being in the company of two old friends going through their party pieces at a Christmas party, albeit a lavish one.  Aljaž and Janette prove delightful company to be with over a two-hour show and they are supported by a brilliantly talented ensemble of eight dancers and two singers (who are no slouches themselves when it comes to joining in some of the routines). Overall, as last year, it is a high-energy, fast-moving (in more ways than one) show from the opening brief melody of familiar carols and a rampant ‘Holidays are Coming’ to the time at the end when everyone is on their feet, clapping and singing along to Mariah Carey’s evergreen Christmas classic ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’.

Donny Hathaway’s ‘This Christmas’ introduces us to the two superb singers, Miranda Wilford and Adrian Hansel, whose stylish contributions add so much to the enjoyment of the show and almost makes you forget the music we hear is prerecorded. Andy Williams’s ‘It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year’ follows and the audience gets its chance to welcome Aljaž and Janette to the stage and from then on – possibly with conserving some energy in mind – when dancing together we see a lot of waltzing, foxtrotting and American smoothing from them. However, just at the point in the second half when – I will admit! – I began wondering ‘Is that all they can do?’ there is an astonishing cha-cha-cha from Aljaž and Janette, a fiery tango for Aljaž and Faye Huddleston and the full-on Latino extravaganza from the entire company to ‘Carnaval del Barrio’, as much West Side Story as the movie In The Heights where the song is from.

‘Fairytale in New York’ © Fiona Whyte for The TCB Group

Other highlights include ‘Rat Pack Christmas’, a Nutcracker-themed ‘The Magic of Christmas’, a routine to ‘Fairytale of New York’ made all the more poignant with the recent death of The Pogues’s frontman Shane MacGowan who sang on this much-played Christmas favourite with the late Kirsty MacColl, all coming before the joyous singalong ‘It’s Christmas’ finale.

As Aljaž told us early in the show ‘One thread that goes through all of our tours, we have to celebrate Disney and don’t worry we’re going to celebrate it again today [as Janette’s] Christmas present to herself every single year.’ A trio of songs ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ (from Pinocchio), ‘So This is Love’ (from Cinderella) and ‘Let it Go’ (from Frozen) featured some of Miranda Wilford’s best singing in the entire show. It was a delight to see and hear Janette again – in her eye-catching Santa costume – flirt with the male dancers whilst singing ‘Santa Baby’. The return of Aljaž’s red smoking jacket was equally welcome when he crooned along to ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ with the female dancers in their own Santa outfits.

You will find so much to enjoy if you see Dancing in a Winter Wonderland, first there are the colourful costumes and a deceptively simple set with five LED screens and two doors either side of some central steps rising to a narrow platform. Ryan Howard’s sophisticated and ever-changing images give the show all the festive atmosphere it needs (just think of the animated Christmas ecards we are sent more and more these days). Of course, there is all the song and dance (in a variety of styles), but I really enjoyed the way Aljaž and Janette can (lovingly) tease each other and Aljaž’s self-deprecating humour based on his perceived inactivity since last Christmas. At one point he celebrates how ‘After a long year of not doing much I fit in the same trousers as last year’ whilst suggesting a ‘two-pack’ needs work.

Dancing in a Winter Wonderland is perfect Christmas entertainment, do see it if you can.

Jim Pritchard

For more information about Dancing in a Winter Wonderland click here.

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