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It's official. Seeing the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO) has become a seasonal right of passage for some folks.

For more than a decade, TSO has hit the road with a light show that seems to improve every year and thematic material that, while tweaked every once in a while, leans heavily on simplistic, melodramatic gestures.

Still, the band's metal-tinged rock concert extravaganza is more than just a bunch of musicians striking poses with their instruments and flinging their hair around while lasers and fire pots bedazzle the eyes. It has become an "all-ages" attraction, with grandparents, parents and children filling the seats year after year.

The band even donates a portion of the ticket price to aid a local charity. This year's beneficiary was Women & Children's Hospital.
The show is a progressive rock opera at its heart, with all of the blessings and curses inherent in the concept. The plot/libretto at the core of the production has a lot in common with classical opera storylines, including occurrences that would stretch credulity if they happened in "real life."

A narrator clearly if in a stentorian manner enunciates the bombastic text, helping the audience transition from one song to another, and talented individual singers are used to illustrate specific passages in the libretto.

Everything is rehearsed to a "T," and the careful planning of what happens when and who goes where is apparent from the get-go. The light show was amazingly good, a big step up from what was already an impressive catalog of effects and a factor in marking this year's production as one of the most impressive for TSO to date.

Guitarists Chris Caffery and Joel Hoekstra, along with bassist Dave Zablidowsky and electric violinist Roddy Chong, were all over the stage, bouncing from one spot to another, stopping only to mug in tandem with one of the other musicians or tear off a riff. Keyboard players Derek Wieland and Lucinda Butler were fairly static, rendered so by the nature of their instruments, but both managed to channel their energies into melodic forays and rhythmic pulses. Jeff Plate pounded out the essential rhythms from a high-tech looking cage of drums and cymbals.

While the instrumentalists were a near constant presence on the stage, it was the vocalists who provided the biggest improvements to this latest TSO project.

The first singer to appear was Chris Pinnella, a baritone of considerable skill whose singing on "The Lost Christmas Eve" was one of the vocal highlights of the show.

Jay Pierce's soulful take on "Christmas Dreams" was noteworthy, as was Erika Jerry's gospel-inflected "O Come All Ye Faithful" and the pairing of James Lewis' blues-tinged singing and Wieland's boogie woogie piano on "Christmas Night in Blue."

The biggest vocal parts of the production belonged to Bryan Hicks as the narrator, who guides the action from scene to scene, and Rod Evan as a banker who recovers his humanity. If there was an operatic moment in this particular rock opera, it belonged to Evan, whose banker was the only character in the whole piece whose role was fully fleshed out. His multi-song set, interrupted by some flashy instrumental playing, went from introduction to transformation in what turned out to be a mini-opera within an opera.

>> CONCERT REVIEW

What: Trans-Siberian Orchestra

When: Two shows Thursday afternoon and evening

Where: First Niagara Center