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Ho, ho ho! 'tis the season once again for purchasing albums to get us in the Holiday Spirit, as well as to stick in the stockings of good little Broadway and cabaret lovers everywhere. So it's time once again to separate the treats from the coal.

Brian d'Arcy JamesI have been enjoying Brian d'Arcy James as a performer since I first saw him play Young Ben in a production of Follies at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre in 1995. With that, his star-making turn in Titanic, and stellar leading man performances in Lippa's The Wild Party and Sweet Smell of Success, he is one performer definitely long overdue for a solo album. Well, the good news is that d'Arcy James has finally released one and it's absolutely delightful. The bad news is that it's a Christmas album, so one needs to buy it ASAP in order to get the maximum amount of playing out of it before the Christmas trees (or Hanukah bushes) dry out and get tossed in the trash, taking with them one's enjoyment and tolerance of holiday music.

The album, entitled From Christmas Eve to Christmas Morning , is one of the best albums of the year, holiday or 'normal,' and is a treat from start to finish. While the holiday standards are all solid and include a jazzy rendition of "Jingle Bells" and an R&B version of "Joy To The World," it is the numbers written by d'Arcy James that pack the most punch. From the driving title tune (a "Sea of Love"-esque '50s/'60s number that is the perfect accompaniment for a slow dance around the living room with the one you love) to an equally rocking "Santa Claus is Coming Tonight" (a number in the style of '80s Billy Joel) to the memory poem, "Michigan Christmas," d'Arcy James shows a surprisingly solid knack for songwriting.

Vanessa Williams Silver & GoldFor her second holiday album, Silver & Gold, Vanessa Williams has collected fourteen numbers to create a highly romantic, laid back CD perfect for wintertime snuggling, or sitting underneath the tree with a cup of holiday cheer (whatever its proof). Highlights include a version of "Mary's Little Boy Child" guaranteed to make you long for a Caribbean vacation, and numbers Williams performs with a little help from her friends: Brian McNight (on a Gospel/R&B version of "Joy To The World" guaranteed to set you swayin'), Cormac Breatnach & Martin Dunlea (tin whistle and guitar players extraordinaire who lend their talents to beautiful versions of "The Holly And The Ivy" and "Silent Night"), Ossie Davis ("Prelude: I Dream a World") plus members of Broadway Inspirational Voices on some backup vocals (most effectively on a rousing version of "Rise Up Shepherd").

The Lost Christmas EveFor those seeking something out of the ordinary with which to celebrate the holidays, Trans-Siberian Orchestra has released the third and final volume of their Christmas trilogy. Entitled The Lost Christmas Eve, this follow-up to their double-platinum The Christmas Attic fuses elements of hard rock, Broadway, R&B, holiday, and classical music into a rock-opera that recalls Tommy more than a tad. The story is such: heaven's youngest angel is called back to earth to continue Jesus' unfinished business and winds up in New York City to help redeem Christmas, as well as the soul of humanity itself.

The album was conceived and composed by Aerosmith and Savatage producer Paul O'Neill, and features a mix of songs penned by O'Neill, Robert Kinkle, and Savatage founder and keyboardist Jon Oliva, alongside traditional holiday favorites. As I am not much of a fan of the hard guitar-playing rock genre, I must admit that I enjoyed the quieter pieces, such as "Christmas Jazz" and the solo-piano "Wisdom of Snow" most of all. That said, I did find myself bobbing along with the headbanging "Wish Litz" (an instrumental piece subtitled "Toy Shop Madness") more than I would have thought possible.

A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology PageantAnother highly unique holiday offering is the cast album of A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant, last season's cult (no pun intended) and OBIE winning hit. Created by the experimental theatre troupe, Les Freres Corbusier, the show tells the story of Scientology through that most venerable of traditions: the often-times cringe-inducing, overly saccharine, tolerable-only-to-those-with-children-involved holiday pageants. Not having seen the show, I imagine (based on all that I have read) that it neatly skewered the highly litigious Church of Scientology (hence the inclusion of 'unauthorized' in the show's title) with equal parts irony and tongue-in-cheek seriousness. However, that feeling does not come through in the songs. Divorced as they are by any visual cues or book scenes, the songs sound as if they could be used as recruitment ditties for L. Ron Hubbard's followers to snare more souls into their world of divided minds and e-meters. Songs like "L. Ron Hubbard" (which chirpily postulates on what the 'L' stands for while giving a biography of Scientology's founder) and the Schoolhouse Rocks-sounding "Science of the Mind" come across as teaching tools for the church (the only song that is mind-blowingly absurd is "The Way It Began," which is as fantastical as any of the science fiction books written by Hubbard).

Ann-Margret Christmas CarolI have to admit that I was more than a little skeptical when I heard that Ann-Margret had released the first holiday album of her four-decades long career. To be honest, I was concerned that the album would be more camp than carols (although that would have made for a highly entertaining hoot of a listen), especially given the state of her vocals in the recent touring version of The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas. Thus, I was more than a little shocked when I put Ann-Margret's Christmas Carol Collection in my CD player and discovered it to be a highly enjoyable, beautifully sung and interpreted holiday album. Produced by Grammy Award winner Art Greenhaw, the CD is a mellow, understated holiday treat that showcases Ann-Margret at her throaty and sensual best. Her rendition of "Silent Night" (complete with Swedish lyrics) is stirring and beautiful, as is her wistful version of "I'll Be Home For Christmas." While turning "What Child Is This?" into a 'history of rock' arrangement is a bit much for this listener, a country-tinged "The Manger Song" perfectly hits the mark, the '60s rock version of "Go Tell It On The Mountain" is a joyful hoot and the version of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" will have you racing for your surfboards.

Broadway's Greatest Gifts Carols for a Cure 6The Broadway community has once again recorded a holiday album to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. This year's 2-CD set, Broadway's Greatest Gifts - Carols for a Cure Vol. 6, features cast members from almost two-dozen shows. While there are plenty of traditional carols to be heard (my favorites being Avenue Q's 'surf's-up' interpretation of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," Bombay Dreams' Bollywood version of "Joy To The World," and a beautiful instrumental pairing of "I Wonder As I Wander" and "Oh Come, All Ye Faithful" by the cast of Chicago), it is the lesser known numbers that captivate: Wicked cast members performing the off-beat "Christmas Wrapping," the cast of The Lion King performing a Forever Plaid-esque "Holiday Lament" (aka: "The Fruitcake Song"), Mamma Mia and Tovah Feldshuh paying tribute to Hanukah with an a cappella version of "Shalom Rav" and a humorous "Shalom Santa," respectively, The Producers' cast performing a choral version of "A Christmas Carol" from Scrooge, and Jarrod Emick and the cast of Boy From Oz singing "It Won't Feel Like Christmas."


-- Jonathan Frank


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