"Just hear those sleigh bells jingling, ring-ting-tingling, too ..." It's time to hear the new holiday CDs. We're making a list and checking it twice. Most are dominated by the old standbys, but there are some less overdone songs, too - and even a few new ones.
IRVING BERLIN'S WHITE CHRISTMAS
Glad tidings! The snazzy cast album for the stage production of White Christmas is the merriest Christmas present you can imagine for traditional musical theater feel-good sparkle. With the Irving Berlin songs from the 1954 movie (featuring his 1942 title song), plus several extra Berlin standards, the new stage musical that's been playing around the country makes for grand CD listening. Don't look for some kind of radical reinventing or dragging these wonderful old songs through the mill to make them sound modern. Yet, this is anything but a tired retread: it's respectful but youthful-sounding, thanks to the swell cast (that seems to be the most appropriate adjective) and in very large part to the zesty musical dressing. Orchestrations are by Larry Blank, vocal and dance arrangements are by Bruce Pomahac, and the 32-piece orchestra is conducted by Rob Berman, who co-produced the CD with Joel Moss - trusted and familiar names to musical theater fans. The dance music is especially engaging: filled with crisp but full instrumental sounds. The whole thing sounds like an old Broadway show.
This is an affectionately "old school" (or shall we say "classic') event - unapologetically jumping head first into the pool of solidly built Berlin songs - and everybody sounds happy to be doing so and quite at home. There's no attempt at vocal resemblance to the iconic film stars, so let's not even go there.
Vibrant Brian d'Arcy James (as Bob Wallace) shines and has lots of opportunities to do so: he is on 11 of the 17 vocal tracks. Song and dance man Jeffry Denman (Phil Davis) sings with panache. Meredith Patterson (Judy Haynes) is beguiling and delightful throughout, brightening each number and vocal blend she's in during the show. Anastasia Barzee (Betty Haynes), as her sister, gets the more serious numbers (the solo "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me," and the duets with Brian, "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep" and "How Deep Is the Ocean"). She has a nice rich quality there, but has a light sense of fun in the other numbers. Brian, Jeffrey, Meredith and Anastasia starred in the San Francisco cast.
Longtime theater fans and cast album collectors have a special treat in store: beloved belter Karen Morrow is aboard for the CD. She appeared in the St. Louis (Muny) and Boston productions as Martha Watson, and sounds pretty sensational here, even though she doesn't get to sing full force. She's featured in four numbers, soloing with one of the interpolations, "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy." The show has an ensemble, but only in "Snow" is any of them singing solo lines (Jennifer Prescott and Cliff Bemis do just fine with Jeffry and Meredith).
Would it seem sacrilegious to admit that "White Christmas" is hardly the high point? It's a big finale-style number: overblown and rushed, with no possibility for real sentiment. But that seems to be the order of the day here: Besides "How Deep is the Ocean," none of Irving Berlin's many ballads were plucked when the movie score was padded. (A few songs heard in the movie are not in the stage show.) This album is not one to carefully analyze, pick apart, or compare to the film treatments: it's for carefree enjoyment. A booklet includes photos, a plot synopsis, a bit about how the stage version developed, and all the lyrics. The website www.WhiteChristmasTheMusical.com is especially interesting.
The CD should bring plenty of cheer at Christmastime and all year long. Christmas is just a small part of what's going on - and what's going on is a barrel of fun.
BROADWAY'S GREATEST GIFTS:
It's now become a holiday tradition to have new recordings of seasonal songs by the current casts and musicians of Broadway shows, with their participation in the CDs that raise funds for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Called Broadway's Greatest Gifts: Carols for a Cure, the albums have a mix of the traditional and the theatrical, with some spectacular singing.
This year, the double-disc set has the more religious and serious tracks together on the first CD, called "Nice" while the comedy - nine nifty "Naughty" numbers - are all on the second.
The "Nice" disc is generous with 17 tracks. Before Christmas takes over, things start off with a shot of adrenaline via what might be described as a gospel-style song about Chanukah, "Shine On," courtesy of the cast members of Tarzan, and written by two of them: John Elliott Oyzon and Natalie Silverlieb. A track called "St. Nick Swing" is a jazzy jolt mixing in the Santa-mental favorites "Jolly Old St. Nicholas" and "Up on the Housetop." Featuring singers from The Producers, the creative arranger-conductor-keyboard player is Adam Waite, whose fresh ideas enrich eight tracks. Among them, two feature Broadway's youngest voices along with their older castmates: the company of Mary Poppins with the traditional "This Little Light of Mine" and a sweet new song about the real meaning of the holiday season from the Beauty and the Beast folks called "The Key to Christmas," by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner. What appears to be a mix of voices and genders is all Ryan Lowe, Chicago's Mary Sunshine, pulling off quite a hat trick, with "Lullay, Thou Little Tiny Child." Norm Lewis, soloing dynamically on "Birthday of a King" is nothing less than sensational. Alexander Gemignani serves as musical director for a stunningly beautiful a capella version of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman," where he has the lead vocal and is joined by some Sweeney Todd alumni. The first disc ends satisfyingly with Broadway's newest cast: Company, led by Raul Esparza and Barbara Walsh, in a tasty toast of "Auld Lang Syne."
After the rich musical banquet of the first disc, the second feels like dessert. It may be an antidote/incentive for the more Scrooge-like listener and has more of the unique comic attitude of some shows. For Altar Boyz, there's "Joseph's Dilemma" for that harmonizing group, providing the "huh?" moment about Mary's unlikely news in the Nativity story. Avenue Q residents entertain with a simple seasonal stress solution: getting blissfully drunk ("The Holi-daze," its lyrics filled with pun fun). Not to be outdone, the Spelling Bee chums chime in with "December's Other, Less Famous Holidays" in a track that spells success, too. Kiki and Herb offer an oddly compelling "Like a Snowman" and there a couple of silly stories, too, a slice of Monty Python from Spamalot and "childhood memories" from [title of show].
Carols for a Cure, Volume 8 is overflowing with Broadway talent (and a couple of visitors from off Broadway) and is the cure for what ails you: whether you need a break from Christmas platitudes or a re-infusion of the real spirit and soul of Christmas after an overdose of sentiments and decorations that are too plastic. The double-disc set selling for only $20 at www.broadwaycares.org, with proceeds going to a good cause, is cause enough to put this at the top of your list.
The sunny personality and sound of Susan Egan lights up a stage and always comes through on disc. Two songs about holiday lights are highlights that find this theater performer exercising her acting muscles nicely. One is "Little Colored Lights" by Laurence Holzman, Felicia Needleman and Wendy Wilf, featured in the holiday revue That Time of the Year, which just opened at the York Theatre in a smart and bright production. Georgia Stitt's intelligent and thoughtful "At Christmas," about the day after the holiday, presents a character with a specific point of view and an underlying sadness. There's noble strength in the Chanukah song "We Are Lights" by Stephen Schwartz and Steve Young, sung with real richness. "Cold Enough to Snow," another Schwartz collaboration (with Alan Menken), is welcome, as is the Menken/Lynn Ahrens joint effort "God Bless Us Everyone." The Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty "All Those Christmas Cliches" is heartfelt, too.
Susan is accompanied by her usual musical director / co-producer / keyboardist, Christopher McGovern, who contributes one original song about Thanksgiving. It's called "The Turkey and the Stuffing" and is about forgoing the usual holiday hassles and hang-ups and just staying home a frozen TV dinner and a six-pack and her romantic partner (not listed in order of importance).
There's a charm factor that seems to come along with Susan Egan. I've always found her delightful, and the girlish glow seems genetically embedded in her persona. Here and there, in the material that comes already loaded with cute quotient, Winter Tracks treks through some highly sweetened territory and it's like having candy canes for breakfast. Taking the relentlessly and chipper "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" at a slightly slower pace than usual doesn't really diminish the wholesome perkiness praising "the hap-happiest season of all" with is "gay, happy meetings."
There's a tender touch with Cyndi Lauper's "New Year's Baby (First Lullaby)" - Susan's major New Year project is having a baby in early February. With that and her Disney credits, plus her youthful sound, can the Susan Egan children's album be far behind?
It's hard to beat Andrea Marcovicci when it comes to touching the heart - or breaking it. Just listen to her carefully shaded line readings: the tender "angels will watch over you" ("Christmas Lullabye" by Cy Coleman and Peggy Lee) or the lament of "the gift that I long to see is one that I know can't be" ("The Gift" by Adryan Russ and Brad Ellis). These are under-recorded gems, but My Christmas Song for You is full of warmly sung, finely etched moments from lyrics we have heard sung by everyone. Sure, other singers are more technically dazzling with steel-belted or crystalline voices, but few can imbue a song with so much personalized drama and attention to detail. Her singing style may be an acquired taste, but I was converted long ago, though it can take seeing her in person to really "get" the whole picture. This particular album grew on me more and more as I listened, as some of its strengths are the most subtle moments.
An interesting choice for a Christmas album is an old big band era piece, "Blue Champagne," so appropriate for Andrea, for she is the champagne of cabaret singers: high class elegance all the way. When the lady lingers lovingly on a phrase like "each little dream we knew" or the word "boomerang" this song about memories becomes that itself - memorable! When she sings "White Christmas," she really sounds like she is remembering the sight of those treetops and the sound of those sleigh bells. It's all about painting - and then relishing - a delectable image, even elevating a simple one others might toss away, like the litany of common sights of the season in "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" or "Sleigh Ride" or "Silver Bells." She can make a lot out of adjectives that sound careless, coy or awkwardly old-fashioned when others sing them: "delightful," "lovely," "appealing." She embraces the word by enunciating it with precision and adding a wide smile.
Longtime musical collaborator Shelly Markham adds many graceful touches as arranger and pianist. The six musicians usually don't go too heavy on the melody line for these well-known tunes, allowing for breathing room and mood instead. Occasionally, for contrast, the simple beauty of a melody is emphasized, as in an instrumental break on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," a track where guitarist supreme Bucky Pizzarelli is featured. Integrating some songs just instrumentally enhances the drama almost subliminally: for example, a moody and slowed-down instrumental of the normally peppy "There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays" sets the tone for "I'll Be Home for Christmas." That leads into another "home" dream, Cole Porter's "You'd Be So Nice to Home To," somehow making it an honorary Christmas song.
The title song was recorded by Andrea in the past, on the 1993 Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Cabaret Noel, and the new version is lovely, too. My Christmas Song for You is also the title of a live show Andrea will present, joined by other cabaret singers, at Symphony Space in Manhattan on December 18. Meanwhile, she is performing her showier but very satisfying tribute to Hildegarde at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room through January 13th, celebrating her 20th year there, with Shelly Markham joined by this album's fine bass player, Jered Egan. The CD is available there and on her website).
To be honest, what I want for Christmas is always What I Want for Christmas or something like it - meaning holiday songs I like that don't get recorded as much, plus a singer being able to surprise me with a fresh take on something that's been overexposed. Russ Lorenson has done it. This vocalist, still quite new at the game, has been diligently working on his craft. Judging by this album, he's made tremendous strides in finding his own way with a song and his sound. This has been the album I find myself coming back to quite a bit. It fulfills the potential evident in his debut CD, A Little Travelin' Music. He works with several of the same musicians, led by the ace pianist-arranger-producer Kelly Park, and does repeat one track from that album, the affectionate "Christmas in San Francisco." (That's where he's based, and he has some Christmas-oriented and other gigs there, as noted on his website, where the albums can also be sampled.)
Russ's clear and enthusiastic voice is well suited for ringing out with holiday cheer. He opens with the recent "My Favorite Time of Year," written by the young jazz pianist/singer Peter Cincotti and family, a lively tune that's as straightforward and uncluttered as Russ's general sensibility. Another refreshing choice comes right away: "I Guess There Ain't No Santa Claus" (Johnny Mercer/ Barry Manilow/ Eddie Arkin) - it's sort of the blues with a light touch and a wry smile. A perky and playful little novelty Bing Crosby and others once played around with, "Little Jack Frost, Get Lost," is brought back and tossed around like a snowball in a four-song medley about the cold weather. From the score of White Christmas, Russ digs into "Snow," joined knee-deep in glee by terrific Terese Genecco, Kristopher McDowell and Alexandra Kaprielian.
The revelation comes with, of all things, Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn's "The Christmas Waltz." Most singers play up its ingratiating swingy rhythm and make it a light bit of fluff. Here, it is very much slowed down, and - eureka! - a serious, tenderly romantic piece of material has been lurking there all these fifty-plus years. Russ makes the most of it in this five-minutes-plus version, letting us linger languorously over the images, giving them an added weight and importance. What a beauty, and Kelly supports him all the way with thoughtful piano accompaniment and graceful solo. On the other hand, or the other side of the coin, a jaunty "I'll Be Home for Christmas" doesn't really work for me, because how can you ignore the sad last line "if only in my dreams"? Though I'll admit that the zippy pace of the melody itself is nevertheless invigorating this way, like a brisk blast of cold air on a winter's walk.
When you're in the mood to vent about the glut of cute-factor famous Christmas songs, and thus suffering from sugar poisoning, enjoy "If I Hear Another Song About Christmas," another song about Christmas. But this one throws darts at very specific warhorses, and has its own comic twist, handled well here by our singer. Russ, who has also been performing a Tony Bennett tribute, has some of that man's mix of warmth and humor and definitely a hearty helping of his joie de vivre.
UNDER THE RADAR
And the last item under the Christmas tree is ...
His name is John Signorello but he bills himself just by his last name. He's recorded before, but I'm just catching up with him now. He sings with brio, sounding tentative only occasionally. Signorello is in the tradition of Italian pop singers, from Frank Sinatra, an acknowledged influence, to Julius LaRosa. This is a pretty straightforward, high-energy Christmas outing with a direct presentational approach as opposed to an introspective, psychologically complex feel.
The often brass-prominent arrangements (four trumpets and four trombones) are mostly exciting and full of energy. The arrangements are uncredited but have a great kick and are tight and spirited. (Yes, there are sleigh bells on "Sleigh Ride.") And the band really gets to play! He's working with some great musicians, including recognizable names like drummer Tony Tedesco, pianist-conductor Rich Iacona and bassist Madeline Kole Iacona, also a wonderful singer. Alas, Madeline isn't on vocals; the singers backing him up are Dena Miller and LaTanya Hall, but they aren't used all that much. The album is handsomely produced by sax player Richie Cannata, alumnus of Billy Joel's band and currently performing with The Beach Boys. He plays on the album, a real plus, soloing on three tracks.
A hard-driving jazzy "My Favorite Things" is one of my favorite things here, with that classic from The Sound of Music sounding boisterous, building nicely with Signorello's celebrational attitude avoiding corn. It also features a hot alto sax solo by Andy Fusco. This album is as much about the band as it is about the singer. The band is just that good.
Sound samples are available at his website, www.signorello.com and the singer will be performing selections from the Hey Man... CD Sunday evening, December 10 at the Iridium Jazz Club on Broadway and at Blues Alley in Washington, DC two days later. Actually, the album itself, as the title suggests, has a "live" feel and a "party" approach present in attitude, with spoken asides like "You'd better believe it" at the end of one number and a contemporary "What's up with that?" during "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." But the guy is more than capable of showing his tender side in a ballad, and in his own composition, "Christmas Lullaby," which, despite its title, has some zing, too. You won't sleep through this lullaby.
Besides that original tune, the selections on this 10-track CD are all well-known items, including "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," the 62-year-old song still going strong; it is also on the albums above by Andrea Marcovicci, Susan Egan, and the Carols for a Cure CD (sung by Howard McGillin). And it's on two more albums that will come up in the next week or two. But meanwhile, have yourself a merry little pre-Christmas period.