Sound Advice ReviewsA Christmas Story ... and the annual same old story: new holiday CDs
There are three things certain in life: death, taxes, and that every year there will be a bunch of new Christmas recordings on the market. "Haul out the holly" and have a look at this year's holiday Hallmark-esque haul and deck the halls.
A CHRISTMAS STORY
Joy to the world of musical theatre! Broadway has a darling and peppy new Christmas resident. Well, it's not exactly new, and this recording of A Christmas Story is not the cast you'll see on Broadway (it's the earlier Seattle cast, with Tom Wopat and Liz Callaway filling in), but it's spiffy and full of holiday cheer and worth three cheers. This musicalization of the Jean Shepherd tale, which became a film in 1983 and has hung on, embraces family values and holiday anticipation from a remembered kid's point of view. But the merry, misty-eyed recollections are not so feel-good fuzzy/blurry that they have forgotten the frustrations in the form of school bullies, an irritable parent, a department store Santa not so strong in the patience department, and a Christmas Day that stubbornly won't arrive soon enough.
So, there's some spice in this egg nogand plenty of polished musical theatre savvy and sparkle in the work of the solid cast, the energizingly entertaining orchestrations by Larry Blank, and the score by the young, talented duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Perhaps, at first what stands out in their dutifully well-crafted songs may be the overall goodwill and catchy happiness and some pressing the needed buttons, with loyalty to the source material. But more careful listening brings not just delight and gratitude for the mega-merry melodic catchiness, but an added admiration for alliteration (like "Stray socks on the stair" and "A million more you've missed" in "What a Mother Does") and internal rhymes (for example, "Zooming into Bloomington" and "scrape the maple trees" in "Somewhere Hovering over Indiana").
While primarily perky, the sweetly satisfying recording has its respites for a change of pace, and they are Mom moments, with Liz Callaway gloriously singing the role of the comforting mother, imparting wisdom and urging patience and perspective in "Just Like That." And the count-your-blessings hug of a title song is a gentle heartstrings tug rather than a razzle-dazzle show stopper. In his narrations, Tom Wopat hits the right note of folksy recollecting.
Perhaps the biggest blessing (cue your sigh of relief here) is that the kids are terrific, talented, and sing strongly without overkilland they're not coasting on cuteness, even more a consideration for the audio-only experience. Clarke Hallum makes our young hero, Ralphie, a feisty, fun fellow, nailing the right mix of determination, hope, grit and restlessness as he relentlessly lusts after his dream Christmas gift, a BB gun, and imagines himself a cowboy sharpshooter in the high-energy, highly loopy company number, "Ralphie to the Rescue." Randy, the younger siblings, is performed with impressive, non-cloying spunk and endearingness by Matthew Lewis, and the brothers' bonding as they try to glue a broken prize of their father's is a real winner ("Before the Old Man Comes Home"). The group song for the children's ensemble, a lament of what life is like "When You're a Wimp" ("You're picked on!/ And you're the last one picked!") is a charmer, the honest, much younger other side of the musical coin of the strutting bravado in something like "The Jet Song" from West Side Story.
These tracks were on an album recorded in December of 2010, and in 2011 (April, August) sold in the theatre where the show played pre-Broadway, but it's now minus one since-cut number. Material has been added since, so you won't hear that either. The splendid John Bolton (as the father) is the sole lead heard here who is playing his role on the New York stage now. Puffing himself up in a solo as "The Genius on Cleveland Street" (" ...the guy they line up to meet") and then leading the longest number (over seven minutes long), reveling in having won "A Major Award" in a contest, he's irrepressibly and contagiously pleased as can be ("Here's the proof I'm someone/ I'm a someone very wise/ When you're this astute/ You get saluted with a prize"). These strutting showstoppers are old school musical theatre splash at its sunniest and are real treats.
Blank's orchestrations add the sizzle and heartfelt heartbeat, echoing little melodic phrases just heard vocally, and laying on some schmaltz and sass, building excitement or mellowing the sugar with a wistful orchestral comment. Sure, there's some hard-sell of the joy in the music, but I'm pretty much sold on A Christmas Story. That's my "story" and I'm sticking to itlike a tongue on a frozen flagpole.
VARIOUS MUSICAL THEATRE ARTISTS
As a fundraiser for the charity Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, the musical theatre community pitches in with their companies recording songs of the season: something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue. This year, the "borrowed" and "blue" come as one track: Cyndi Lauper (songwriter for the new Kinky Boots) letting Rock-It Science Records borrow her nicely done "Blue Christmas" from last year. The "new" element includes things written or adapted for the occasion, like the lively large-group "Call Your Mom" by Aaron LaVigne of the Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark folks, on which he's the first of four soloists and the guitarist. And, of course, the "old" would be the usual suspects found on a gazillion Christmas albums, but often given a Broadway-specific and/or contemporary twist, such as a cheeky tongue-in-cheek rap by the cast of Newsies on an uber-merry "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen."
With 20 selections spread over two discs, not counting the Lauper retread, there's something for everyone on this eclectic grab-bag of earnestness and whimsy. There are clusters of kids, some good old Broadway belting, reverently-intoned carols (the geographically-appropriate Irish "Wexford Carol" for Once) and a gender reassignment in the form of "Good Queen Wenceslas" by the cast of recent revival arrival, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (although it features stars Chita Rivera and Stephanie J. Block, note they are speaking their solo lines, but it's an entertaining parade nevertheless).
Ironically, the set does not include representation of the season's Christmas shows, perhaps because they weren't in place at recording time, and the only seasonal entertainment production is a regional one, from Colorado: the Arvada Center's production of Meredith Willson's Miracle on 34th Street (originally titled Here's Love) with a suitably jolly "Jolly Old St. Nicholas." Though their Broadway bow is currently and notoriously cancelled, the Rebecca cast got to participate with a very attractive new number called "Keep the Home Fires Burning" with music by Steven Landau and words by D.C. Anderson, one of the cast members on board singing.
This year's goofball guilty pleasure is the old novelty number "Dominick the Donkey" with its "hee-haw, hee-haw" gleefully chanted by some of Peter and the Starcatcher's stars, led by Greg Hildreth. They really get into the spirit of the silliness. And the gossip maven new to NEWSical does entertaining dishy digs via his own eponymous, custom-written "A Perez Hilton Christmas" with words by George Howe and Frances Limoncelli and music by the album series' producer and musical whiz kid multi-tasker, Jason Michael Webb. And Webb created the appropriately rockin' out specialty for the Rock of Ages cast, called "@ The Venus Club"it's a pip. And I'd give the sincerity prize to a lovely piece called "The Wreath of Kindness" from The Lion King company, written by Peter Candela, who plays three instruments and coordinated the orchestra.
While most singing is played straight, those Wicked people can't resist a neat inside joke of a lick from one of the score's bravura moments when they end "O Holy Night," taken at a brisker tempo than you may have encountered anywhere. And the Bring It On cheerleaders are right in character, spelling out A-N-G-E-L-S with high-energy zeal during "Angels We Have Heard on High." Evita's main stars are all heard on solos in a medley that opens the CD, singing in both English and Spanish, and the Jersey Boys boys (and gals) have their own medley as the closer, with plenty of appropriate festiveness of the season (make that The Four Seasons).
As always, this is the ideal choice for the Broadway baby on your Christmas listwhich might mean yourselfand, of course, the proceeds go to a very worthy cause. It can be purchased at the BC/EFA website and at many theatres. Past years' releases are also sold on the BC/EFA site, individually or as a boxed set.
HALIE LOREN with MATT TREDER (piano)
When you need a break from more rambunctious, big-big-big Christmas music blaring at you, vocalist Halie Loren and pianist Matt Treder are the antidote. It's Christmas herbal tea for two, as the piano is the only instrument and Halie's crushed-velvet voice and Matt's understated work create that cozy-by-the-fire winter feel that so many strive for and miss. They create true intimacy. As found in their marvelous CD reviewed here this summer, Heart First, they pull a listener in and the holiday spirit finds some playfulness, too. The whole CD feels like a super-smooth toboggan ride up and sown gently-sloping hills, thanks to Halie's way of floating over a lyric with a mix of legato singing and some whispered words, with her musical partner who continues and deepens a mood on his solos, rather than go on his own hijacking tangent. I love it. They even make me enjoy a couple of seasonal ditties that often grate on my nerves in other way-too-noisy/plucky renditions. Some singers veer to overkill with the flirtiness of "Santa Baby" and "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" not here. Halie has a subtle mini-chuckle/smile in her voice which she invokes judiciously, so it comes off as sexy rather than forced sex kitten-y.
While most tracks are familiar staples, there are two piano solos composed by Treder and the vocal highlight is an excellent "Blue Holiday" (Ande Rasmussen/ John Gilliam) that is artful melancholia, not maudlin, gorgeously sung and played. It's a real keeper. It's a tasteful, rich album from beginning ---that old favorite about chestnuts roasting on an open you-know-what ("The Christmas Song," a lyric line of which gives this CD its title) --- to the end, adopting the standard "Nature Boy" as a Christmas-appropriate sentiment, about the lesson of being able to "just to love and be loved in return" being "the greatest thing you'll ever learn." I found myself wishing there weren't only nine vocals plus the two instrumentals (some on the short side, too), but making a mental note of this antidote to the blare and big and commercial Christmas stuff, and one I return to and will do so, even "out of season."
DONNA SINGER with THE DOUG RICHARDS TRIO
I have very mixed feelings about Donna Singer's work. She can be quite an effective communicator, equally at home with various genres and tempi, but things don't always work for me. There can be an awkward reach for a high note, a kind of cursory gloss-over of a lyric demanding more nuance, but then she'll turn around and charm me and be right on the money. The dozen choices on her Kiss Me Beneath the Mistletoe have their nice, trying, and innocuous moments. It's also a mix of the classics and some new things, beginning with the first three tracks co-written by husband Roy Singer, who also contributes a fourth later one. Two collaborations are with Elly Koury. They did the title number, a vocal duet with trumpeter Luis Camacho, a lyrically underwhelming bit (with lines that begin with couplet with a false rhyme of "planned" and "man"). The other is more interesting, about the loneliness "On New Year's Eve," with a melody that somewhat recalls the old Victor Young/Peggy Lee "Where Can I Go Without You?" Two others co-written with Elly Koury are more serious and fare better. There's a treacly original from her bass-playing leader Doug Richards, "Christmas in My Heart," perhaps scraping the bottom of the baking pan to come up with a new idea for a Santa Claus song, about the red-suited guy liking donuts more than cookies. It's surprisingly slow-paced in milking its supposed sweetness.
Guest guitarist Jeff Otis is featured on his own "Christmas Is Near," an attractive and deft instrumental where pianist Billy Alfred ingratiates, too, with some laidback jazz excursions. Donna comes off best on the religious selections and the more straightforward, calmer famed items, like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (here mistakenly attributed to arranger Tommy Newsom instead of Hugh Martin), where she captures some yearning and sings with more dignity and natural warmth. When she's relaxed and in the zone, as in this and "Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow," she projects a more compelling and sturdier presence, worthy of attention.
Surprise! Four new Christmas songs with lyrics by singer Tom Culver, who sounds more in charge and assertive than in some past pleasant but not especially distinguished, more mild-mannered CD outings of standards. (Another 2012 releases waits as yet unheard in my pile, and I now look forward to that.)
Things begin with the zippiest but least rewarding song, a slim distraction called "It's Christmas Time in Brazil" with the expected rhythm and way too many repetitions of the title line. But there are nicer, if rather sentimental, things to come. Most graceful is the second track, "The First Snow," with some unpretentious praises of the pleasures of anticipating that precipitation of wintertime. A real sense of wonder, focusing on the senses, is invoked and does not overstay its welcome. Two of the composers even, coincidentally, have Christmas-appropriate names: this one is by Effie Joy and the title song is by Holly Addyalong with Rick Hils, who is sole composer of that Brazilian opener and the closer, "Are You Going Away for the Holidays?," which has a neatly underplayed element of longed-for romance keeping its distance. Rick Hils is also on keyboards, did the arrangements (there's also a guitar played by Tom Bethke) and co-produced the tracks with the vocalist.
Though these are not groundbreaking or heartbreaking, secular Christmas songs that are new instead of trotting out things from the usual 30 or so over-roasted chestnutsthat is something to applaud. And so, some modest but appreciative applause for this quartet of entries that are welcome changes from those heard so much and those that are not so much successful in breaking the ice each winter. The sincerity comes through on the three latter pieces and I guess a samba never hurt anyone too much.
SCROOGE & MARLEY
Lights, camera, a different kind of action. The new film Scrooge & Marley is a gay take, of sorts, on the classic A Christmas Carol. Guess who had a relationship in their younger days. You won't get all that much story from this soundtrack, but it's a satisfying and generous (20 tracks) romp with the spirits of Christmases past and pleasant. Alongside ancients like "Coventry Carol" and "Star of Wonder" and two versions of "O Tanenbaum" for groups (traditional for The Chicago Gay Men's Chorus and adapted with new material for The Plush Interiors), there are semi-lost semi-treasures of recent vintage and things created for the film. Artists heard include Samba Bamba on "Jingle Bells" and the saucy female trio BETTY ("Dreidel Jingle Fiasco," a mash-up of two religion's staples getting, well, unstapled but stapled together by sheer wacky will).
Jason Gould contributes a quite lovely vocal, sounding awestruck on "Amazing" (by Marsha Malamet, Liz Vidal and Stephan Oberhoff), grace emanating from his sound and approach. Added to his own recent EP and upcoming duet with his mother, Barbra Streisand, with whom he sang live in her recent concerts, he's becoming quite belatedly visible as a vocalist with an ethereal quality that belies some strength of purpose and voice. Borrowed from Chicago's Hell in a Handbag company are leader/co-writer (with Taylor E. Ross) David Cerda leading The Joans in a hoot of a pseudo-salute to that "dearest" movie star and adopted daughter, with "A Very Crawford Christmas."
There's quite a bit of fun here, in the original stuff, too. "Welcome to Christmas Present" is a showstopper topper, a musical-comedy knockout comparing Christmas to "a Broadway show." It's delicious. And we get before-and-after versions of the curmudgeon and reformed Scrooge comparing him to spoilsports like vegans at the Thanksgiving turkey platter or, later, sweet things. The new material comes from Richard Knight, Jr. and Lisa McQueen, who does both a jazz instrumental and co-arranged a wonderful, long suite of the score as the last track. The movie is being screened around the country, with one in NYC on December 20 (complete schedule and more info at www.scoroogeandmarleymovie.com).
And there's more in Santa's musical sack to come as we sleigh-ride into December.