Easy Street tries to make a ‘Miracle’ without Sanders

Easy Street Productions’ “Miracle on Easy Street” changes every year.

New songs are introduced, young performers move up to more prominent roles and new “Little Rascals” come in to replace them.

The 29th edition of the holiday spectacular, which runs Dec. 15 to 17 at Powers Auditorium, will have its biggest change yet, one that no one foresaw and nobody wanted.

This will be the first “Miracle” without music director Jeff Sanders, who died Nov. 6 at age 53 from an embolism. Easy Street co-founders Todd Hancock and Maureen Collins and the rest of the cast still are dealing with their grief while trying to put on a show that has become a holiday tradition for many in the Mahoning Valley.

“I’ve said before, Maureen is the heart of Easy Street (working) with the kids, and I am more the show biz, promotional end and dealing with the technical side,” Hancock said. “But Jeff was always the music. It was this triangular thing we all had together that made things so much easier.”

Sanders moved to Chicago in 2004, but he continued to lead the band and create arrangements for Easy Street, not only for “Miracle” but for the other musicals, musical revues and cabaret shows the theater company has staged since 1989. And he often did it with a band that was half the size of the pit orchestras that originally played on those musicals.

“He was able to arrange that band to make it sound bigger than it was,” Hancock said. “He could take a big Broadway soundtrack and he was able to pick out the important parts and make it work with our guys. You really felt you were hearing the full score.”

Choreographer Megan Cleland said, “For me especially, having him on stage, you knew everything was going to be exactly how you needed it. And if it wasn’t, Jeff was there asking, ‘What do I need to change?’ … The mood of the song triggers how I want to dance it and how I want the kids to dance it, and that was all triggered by Jeff’s arrangements.”

Sanders’ presence has been felt throughout rehearsals. The recordings Cleland rehearses her dancers to feature Sanders’ guitar playing and often his voice. His name is on all of the posters from past productions that fill the walls at Easy Street’s studio on Mahoning Avenue in Youngstown.

“I keep praying I feel him here calming me,” Collins said.

Collins’ mother died in 2006 the morning of the final scheduled performance of “Miracle.” She went on and did the show. Longtime Little Big Band musician Robert Fitzer battled pancreatic cancer while playing Easy Street shows before his death in 2014.

“This feels worse, because it was so unexpected,” Collins said. “The only way we can get through this is by pretending he had a great opportunity and just couldn’t come this year.”

Sanders died right before rehearsals started with the Little Rascals, the youngest performers in the show. Some are first-timers, but many had worked with Sanders before.

“We started the rehearsal process with this big sadness,” Hancock said. “The wonderful thing about working with kids, almost immediately the kids were talking about how we’re going to do our best for Jeff, how much more of their hearts they’re going to put into it because of Jeff.”

Lake Baum joins the band on guitar and keyboard, filling Sanders’ instrumental role. Drummer Don Yallech, who has filled in when Sanders wasn’t available in the past, will take over as music director for this year’s “Miracle,” and he is completing the arrangements of the new songs that were going to be added this year.

Most of those arrangements Yallech had to start from scratch. However, one that he and Sanders talked about was a version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” inspired by Pentatonix’s arrangement of the much-covered ballad.

“He was especially excited about that one,” Yallech said. “He started it with clarinet, and I started it that way as well. It’s the thing I put the most energy into. That is the tribute to Jeff that I am giving.”

The production also is substituting John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” with “Seasons of Love” from the musical “Rent.” And Hancock will sing “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” which Sanders sang every year.

“It’s not going to be a heavy situation for the audience,” Hancock said. “Jeff would kill us if we did that. I’m sure every time we post a picture on Facebook, Jeff is rolling his eyes, ‘Oh, no, another picture of me on Facebook.’ But Jeff has been one of the major contributors to Easy Street for 29 years. We’re taking the baton from the kids — ‘Let’s do our best for Jeff’ — and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Collins and Hancock serve as hosts of the festivities, which will feature vocalists James McClellan Colleen Chance, Candace Campana, Cortney MacKay and Bailey Conley along with dance numbers, a children’s sing along, an appearance by Elvis Claus and other elements that have been a staple of the show for decades.

“This is a family tradition for a lot of people and we take that seriously,” Hancock said. “We’re honored people come back every year.

“Once it’s going and the kids are all jazzed and the dancers are all jazzed, that’s when it feels like Christmas to me. If 160 kids can’t get you into the Christmas spirit, there’s no hope for you. You might as well go home and cook up some gruel Scrooge, because nothing’s going to to get you in the Christmas spirit. It’s going to be that this year again, maybe more so. Everyone is really committed to honoring Jeff’s memory. People are going to walk out feeling as good as they always do. That’s the goal.”