Holiday Music: The Pretty,
the Playful, the Potent & the Potato
BROADWAY'S GREATEST GIFTS, VOLUME 7: CAROLS FOR A CURE
It's the season of giving and what I'm giving at the moment is a standing ovation to the release of Carols for a Cure, Volume 7. Now this is what I call a talent show! The annual treat of Broadway shows' cast members raising their voices in song raises my spirits big time this year. The long-running Chicago opens the festivities and Broadway's newest hit Jersey Boys gets the last word. With a satisfying balance of the familiar and the new, it's a holiday banquet of delights. There's energy bursting throughout, with spectacular singing voices, some brilliant humor and a few new Christmas songs to treasure. The musical talent is so high, theater-challenged Christmas fans will enjoy most of this at face value even if the inside jokes go over their heads.
This is a 2-CD set. The financial good news is that it's priced far less than most double disc sets (it sells for $20) and the money goes to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. This year, you'll hear more recognizable solo voices than in some of the past editions, which pleases me, but the group work is certainly exceptionally beautiful.
In the category of in-character song performances that sound like a bonus track to their cast album: special tailor-made lyrics for "The 12 Days of Christmas" for the cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a screamingly funny tour de force. Two Off-Broadway shows join the fun in this category with the Altar Boyz bringing the same on-the-surface devotion to their witty new song about what Christmas means to them (with frequent funny attempts to mention Hanukkah or what our Jewish pop star does on Christmas). The Great American Trailer Park Musical cast extols the tacky traditions of "Christmas in My Mobile Home," dripping with devotion for the traditional Christmas Eve tractor pull and other activities. There are also good matches for other shows playing it straight. The kids and adults from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang do a bang-up job with "Let Them Go." Like their own show, this was written by the Sherman brothers - for another Disney movie, The Happiest Millionaire. And, speaking of Disney, Aaron Conley does a Chant very much of the fabric of The Lion King, and the Beauty and the Beast cast has a generous-of-spirit new song by Kim Oler and A.J. Gundell, "The Gift We Give."
The other approach is to assign the company of a musical material that is quite the opposite of the style and mood of their show. Members of Sweeney Todd, All Shook Up, Mamma Mia! and The Producers are cast against type and sing traditional carols.
Two highlights qualify as great deja vu: the sensational Darlene Love, with the back-up of her Hairspray colleagues revisits "All Alone on Christmas," which she sang in the film Home Alone 2 (it's a wow!) and Peter Yarrow guests with the Fiddler on the Roof to lead his own powerful composition "Light One Candle."
Other pleasures? Well, Judy Garland hilariously meets Christmas in an unexpected close encounter but I won't spoil the surprise of how and with which company. A new song about wanting the loving holiday spirit to go on "All Year Long," (Everett Bradley/ Ilene Reid) is touching as performed by Liz Larsen (Bingo). The Wicked company gets "We Are Lights" by the show's songwriter Stephen Schwartz, here collaborating with Steve Young. Anne Runolfsson and Hugh Panaro do a super job leading the Phantom of the Opera voices with David Friedman's always moving "Help is On the Way," orchestrated by the veteran Don Sebesky. In another special moment, singers from The Light in the Piazza cast a light on a stunning song about snow from another musical Striking 12, a Christmas story recorded earlier this year and playing in New York this holiday season.
Available in some stores, Carols for a Cure: Vol. 7 (and earlier versions) can be ordered directly through www.bcefa.org. This is a smash hit from Broadway and it's a vital and sweet charity. Oh, yes! That reminds me... two ladies from Sweet Charity end the first disc with a comedy routine about "Joy to the World," - but there's joy all over the place on these tracks. Track it down.
The album may be called Cold Enough to Snow, but Stacy Sullivan creates such a warm and cozy feeling that you won't be feeling a chill. But "Cold Enough to Snow" is an underexposed song by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz and I'm happy to find her including it on the CD. Much in the same way that Mr. Schwartz in his liner notes wonders, "Why isn't Stacy Sullivan already famous?" I have wondered why this delicately excellent song about a break-up hasn't been recorded more. It's from a 1993 movie called Life with Mikey and I remember falling in love with it on the soundtrack CD. Stacy's wistful version captures you right away with the opening line, "Where did summer go/ How'd I miss the change of season?" In this and another downhearted song, Joni Mitchell's "River," she avoids plunging into the depths of depression, sounding bruised but not broken.
In "Christmas Morning, 1969" (written by Stacy's brother and sister Tim and Heather) the sights, sounds and smells specified make for a lyric that paints a nostalgic scene not without a dose of 1969 realities ("generations clashed, dreams were dashed and torn").
Heather is on piano on this recording, with Gary Ferguson on drums. But it's the guitarists who are like co-stars on this album: Kevin Dukes, John Pierce and George Doering (who also plays mandolin and dobro). It's outstanding work, with the arrangements by Dick Wells all thoughtful, whether reverential ("Ave Maria," "Away in a Manger") or not.
Pick a track, any track, and what comes through is sincerity. Stacy's airy and tender sound is ingratiating. On this album, her third solo CD, she sounds very comfortable and at ease with the material and makes it all accessible. She's elegant without ever sounding the least bit haughty. Stacy retains a mix of country, folk and pop influences in her natural phrasing and sound. She sings with care, but it doesn't sound studied. All this is for the good and the guitar accompaniments make this a really refreshing change from all the big-orchestra and commercial Christmas recordings.
The album ends with a sentimental leave-taking wish, "Angels on Your Pillow," a rarely heard blessing Peggy Lee wrote for her daughter, with a melody by Paul Horner. It's a graceful and optimistic conclusion for a radiant album. All is calm, all is bright.
If you subscribe to the philosophy that there is no such thing as too many Christmas albums, then we may as well throw another log on the fire and another CD in the to-be-played pile: Jane Monheit's The Season. The young singer has been recording since 2000 and has one of the prettiest voices around. She can sound light or lush, and goes both routes here.
Dashing through the snow, she dashes off "Sleigh Ride" and a medley of "I Love the Winter Weather" and "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," plus a jazzy "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." (Jane is always pretty jazzy, but especially on this cut, with an extended ending with a little scat singing.) The more luscious and emotional singing comes in on "Merry Christmas, Darling," and the heartfelt David Foster/Linda Jenner plea for world peace, "My Grown Up Christmas List," especially relevant this year ("No more lives torn apart, and wars would never start ..."). Another wish for "peace on earth, goodwill to men" goes back to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's text, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," set to music in 1956 by Johnny Marks (who first brought us the tale of that red-nosed reindeer among other faves foolish and Yule-ish). The pure and simple beauty of Jane's voice comes through on this track with just guitar accompaniment (Miles Okazaki playing his own arrangement).
Also impressive and even more bare and spare is her a capella "I'll Be Home for Christmas." She sings it straight through once, which takes under a minute (good things come in small Christmas packages). Jane finds the sadness in the song well before the last line of "if only in my dreams." But don't look for this little gem to be listed anywhere on the packaging - it serves as a surprise lead-in for "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," allowing for a bittersweet set-up for a well-phrased, tender reading. She takes some liberties with the melodic line as things progress, but only to serve the drama, not for self-indulgence.
Like snow that melts too soon, this album feels a bit unsatisfying. Maybe it's that its eleven tracks come to less than 45 minutes playing time or because some of the overly familiar songs are given the light-and-breezy treatment. I like my snow and music to have a little more depth, but I'm definitely a fan of this singer and have enjoyed all her recordings. If you're religious about not playing Christmas albums during the off-season, you might still want to isolate this CD's "Moonlight in Vermont" on your computer or iPod. It's a cozy and dreamy version of the standard which refers to snow and ice in passing, and is a welcome track here instead of yet another overdone holiday tune.
The instrumental accompaniment offers some variety, with a bigger band on some tracks and a string section on three cuts. In addition to the aforementioned guitarist, the terrific core band features Jane's drummer husband, Rick Montalbano, bass player Orlando Le Fleming, and Michael Kanan on keyboards. Rob Mounsey arranged and conducted on the bigger-group outings.
Especially if you prefer hip to hip-hop and opt for class over crass in the season, you'll enjoy The Season if you find it in your stocking.
Jane's website, www.janemonheit.com, shows a tour including performances in Seattle this week, and New Yorkers can also find her bringing this Christmas cheer to The Town Hall next Thursday, December 8.
Note: Stores sell a Dual Disc version of The Season, with 20 minutes of video showing Jane singing four of the tunes. (My advance review copy didn't have the video side.)
Many of us have a soft spot for Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the Peanuts characters. The comic strip and years of TV specials and greeting cards, toys, lunch boxes and other merchandising have made them as ubiquitous as Mickey Mouse, only hipper and more neurotic. The stage musicals You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and Snoopy! endeared them all the more to theater fans. This newly recorded tribute features music heard in the classic TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas, and it's also available in a (gift) package with the original TV soundtrack. The 40th anniversary tribute has pianist David Benoit at the keyboards, both acoustic and electric, along with a host of musicians and guest singers. The jazzy, mostly laidback feel makes this a good bet for the Christmas album to play when you don't want something aggressively cheery. It's gentle and slower paced. It will also work as a mellow background on repeat play while you're sipping cocoa with chestnuts roasting on an open fire. "The Christmas Song," the chestnut which begins with the line about those chestnuts, is raspily purred by the swell R&B vet Chaka Khan, who apparently didn't get the memo about being laidback, as she howls and growls out the end of her vocal.
The Vince Guaraldi melodies are here, tracks with lots of sax to help you relax. The "Linus and Lucy" theme features the alto saxophone of Dave Koz, with Gerald Albright's tenor on "O Tannnenbaum" which always makes the pathetically scrawny tree of Charlie Brown seem noble accompanying the TV visuals. Eric Marienthal takes the sax for "Christmas Time is Here," (written with Lee Mendelson), and that number also gets a vocal once-over by Brian McKnight. Norman Brown (no relation to Charlie) offers his pleasing guitar work on "Skating" for a smooth glide, too.
Other singers heard are two who have found their way to Broadway in the past: Toni Braxton, sounding a bit odd on the usually exuberant "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" and, best of all, Vanessa Williams with a warm "Just Like Me" (Benoit/ Mendelson). If you've ever felt like that poor little branch-challenged tree in the story, you'll relate to her take on the lyric. Like gently falling snow or a slow-burning Yule log, this is nice to have as a backdrop, but unlike those things, it won't turn to mush or fizzle.
THE ODD POTATO
In case you've ever wondered what a singing potato might sound like, the answer is that he'd sound like a Tony Award winner. Make that two Best Actor winners separated by a quarter century. In the Hanukkah family musical The Odd Potato, this year's Best Actor winner Dan Fogler (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) goes wild and Latin with, "I Am a Latin Latke," as a sizzling potato pancake. Jim Dale (Barnum) sings the show's title song. These are two of several comic relief numbers in the story. This studio cast CD boasts "20 Tony Award winners" in all. Among the big Broadway names: Judy Kaye and Michele Pawk (each singing a version of the serious and somewhat stately "My Mother's Menorah"); Donna McKechnie kvetching with Dick Latessa; a somewhat restrained Lillias White getting the assignment of serving up the requisite message just before the end, "A Child's Dream Will Light the Way." Hal Linden is impressive in an emotional, strongly sung "what if" type lament, and Maryann Plunkett gets the most solid musical comedy number, "A Little Imagination." It's sunny and catchy, peppered with good energy. Speaking of pepper, Debbie Gravitte offers "Don't Forget the Pepper," a recipe song, with her usual pizazz and vim. (I dare you not to smile when she gets cooking.)
Potatoes take center stage, literally and plot-wise; there's much talk and song about potato pancakes, a grocery store with no potatoes (there's a labor strike - don't ask) and a potato carved to be a substitute menorah. The tale and tone are unapologetically sentimental and the humor broad. The schtick is thick, as are some accents. Gail C. Bluestone is the composer and her sister, Eileen Bluestone Sherman, wrote lyrics and dialogue based on her children's book. It's all inspired by their own family history, and has been previously presented on television and on stage. Its simple charms will entertain in a modest way, but more demanding audiences will notice the weaknesses. The rhymes are sometimes forced or false, and don't fall into the clever, surprising category. There are times when the words don't scan well, making for some awkward moments, like a lumpy potato.
The narration by Judd Hirsch and bits of dialogue make the story easy to follow for youngsters, but it's not all for the very, very youngest: the references to a family member having died are clear but not shocking. The presence of two child actors is a plus, and I give a good report card to Molly Ephraim and Sky Jarrett. Two singing actresses with strong followings are also on the bill: Sutton Foster and Elaine Stritch. But we get very little time with them: Sutton's track is a minute and a half, and it's not all sung. Elaine ends the CD and gets even less time: 44 seconds, and that includes spoken lines and a bit of piano. Nevertheless, she gets her own separate Musical Director (Rob Bowman)! Otherwise, Jay Kerr gets that credit.
Also heard singing are Scott Wise, Ron Holgate, Priscilla Lopez, Cady Huffman, Boyd Gaines and in spoken passages, John Mahoney and Hal Prince. A portion of the proceeds goes to Variety, the children's charity. More on the show and story can be found at their website, www.theoddpotato.com. This unpretentious production has the right recipe for reinforcing Jewish traditions and family values and it has a happy ending. And certainly the Broadway stars add a great deal, and mazel tov to them.UNDER THE RADAR
Perhaps you've heard about this next show as a live event at some point over the last few years, as it has been performed in different cities. I has now been captured on disc with its current cast. It's a rather quiet release for a CD that's anything but quiet.
JUDY'S SCARY LITTLE CHRISTMAS:
A HOLIDAY SPECIAL
If you've had too much Christmas, or too much show biz, this is the perfect antidote. But Judy's Scary Little Christmas is too good to waste on Scrooges. It's a very clever satire of celebrities, forced holiday cheer and TV specials with that old scripted banter meant to sound "natural." Judy is Judy Garland, with many of her sung and spoken vocal quirks expertly absorbed by Connie Champagne. She gets a lot out of the word "marvelous" and has sharp timing - plus vibrato she can apparently turn on at will. The more you know Garland's repertoire (including her 1963 television Christmas show) and that of Ethel Merman, the more you'll appreciate the bits of songs and stylings woven in so well. Merman is played by Lauri Johnson, doing a Hawaiian number that's way, way over the top - but so is the whole show.
Guilty pleasure? Sure, but a well-crafted one by songwriter Joe Patrick Ward who knows his musical ghosts of Christmas Pastiche. Song standouts are the deliciously rich-with-cliches "Back in Christmas Town" and the very Judyesque "Angel Star." The included dialogue by James Webber and David Church is equally on target, and the targets are some of the most parodied stars. To mine new laughs from the likes of Joan Crawford and Richard Nixon is quite a feat. Besides the talent, what makes this work is an affection for the show tunes and showy personalities (well, maybe not so for Nixon, but the idea of him in his Vice President period reluctantly duetting with Lillian Hellman is a cute hoot). Eric Anderson and Jan Sheldrick do the dishonors.
The writers know their subjects and every embellishment, adding some of their own. Ward's music and lyrics show he has done his homework. Musical quotes from the trademark songs abound, and his own orchestrations are further evidence of that and wit. I'd be on Santa's naughty list if I gave away the punch lines and inside jokes, but I think if you love or hate the original articles, you'll have a good time. This is camp, but camp with brains.
The Liberace and Bing Crosby bits aren't as strong as the others and our Bing works gamely but doesn't sound much like the star. But you can't get everything you want for Christmas. I'm feeling merry enough with most of this CD and it even has a surprisingly touching moment near the end, thanks in part to the acting of Dustin Strong. The finale probably goes on too long, but I think that's sort of the point. You'll find out a lot more from the show's website www.judyschristmas.com. If this kind of material is your cup of egg nog, I think you'll find yourself laughing out loud a lot - with a hearty ho, ho, ho.
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night of music. Where the treetops glisten, and children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow, I'll be listening for you as well.