"I'll Be Home for Christmas" might be among the tunes on the set list this weekend for the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra's annual Holiday Concerts. But for vocalist Sarah Ellis, it's a kismet case of life imitating art.
She will replace Tamara Jenkins as the featured vocalist for concerts, set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8, at Five Flags Theater, 405 Main St.
Ellis will be joined by guest conductor David Bernard, music director of New York City's Park Avenue Chamber Symphony, as well as the Dubuque Chorale and members of the Heartland Ballet.
Jenkins is recovering from a sudden illness and had to withdraw.
A Platteville, Wis., native who was a member of the Heartland Ballet and is the daughter of the late Dubuque Symphony Orchestra principal bassoonist Barry Ellis, Ellis performed as Maria in the symphony's staged production of "West Side Story" in 2018. She also served as the featured vocalist for the ensemble's 2016 Holiday Concerts.
This time around, it means just days of preparation.
"I was actually at my family's Thanksgiving when I got the text from David saying, 'The DSO needs you,'" Ellis said in a phone interview. "Immediately after that, I got a text from William (Intriligator, Dubuque Symphony Orchestra music director and conductor)."
Ellis initially had another engagement, as well as embarking on a call back audition for a Broadway show this week. However, she wanted to return home to perform with her "favorite symphony."
"David had no idea who I was, so he was like, 'Wait. You're in New York, too?' Ellis said, laughing. "He had no idea about my connection to the symphony or to the area, or that my dad used to play and that my brother, Daniel, will be playing principal oboe for this concert. It's almost as if it was meant to be."
Graduating from Penn State University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in musical theater and relocating to New York City, Ellis has established herself as an actress, concert artist and producer with a passion for community building across the visual and performing arts.
Her professional credits span theater, film, dance, commercial and symphonic work, as well as readings of new works in New York City.
She also has appeared as a leading lady in theatrical productions in theaters across the country, including in the national tour of the Tony Award-winning musical, "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder," as an understudy.
Acting as a "musical theater first responder," as she called it, might have enabled her to swing in for the symphony on short notice.
"For a year-and-a-half of my life, I was a first responder on tour with a Broadway show, so I might as well be a symphony first responder," Ellis said, with a laugh. "David has been super communicative, and I've been working with my voice teacher and an accompanist here in New York this week. I've never sung 'O Holy Night' before, so I'm finally biting the bullet there. One of the pieces, 'I'll Be Home for Christmas,' was arranged for me by Paul Hemmer, so it actually had my name on it. It's hilarious."
The concerts will be bittersweet as well, as they'll be the first Ellis has returned to the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra to perform since her father's unexpected passing in October 2018.
"It's definitely a new experience," Ellis said. "I think it will be challenging, but I also think that, in a way, it will be an opportunity for me to create new memories. And having my brother play up there with me is so special. I don't think I could do this if there wasn't another Ellis on stage with me for the DSO. It's like carrying on the Ellis family musical tradition. It feels like a 'thank you' to the community that raised me in the arts and that has continued to life our family up through our grief. I'm just really excited to come home."
A one-hour Holiday Family Concert also will take place at 1 p.m. Dec. 7. Children and families can enjoy sing-alongs, as well as have free pictures taken with Santa following the performance. Tickets are $12 for ages 12 and younger, $22 for adults and $32 for box seats.
Tickets for the Holiday Concerts start at $17 and are available from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday, at the Five Flags Center box office; at TicketMaster.com; or in the theater lobby one hour prior to the performances.