Holiday guys and gal
Following last week's look at some of the annual winter wonderland of music for holidays—well, there's more where that came from. Our intermission is over and here is act two. Tell the stage manager to cue the snow as we welcome two Broadway veterans teaming up and joined by a small instrumental group. Then, two other albums: both vocalists from the Washington, DC area (where the aforementioned duo opens next week before their NYC run).
MARK KUDISCH & JEFFRY DENMAN
You might say The Holiday Guys are wise guys. They glibly zip through their album with fun-loving mischievousness, but not enough to land them on Santa's "Naughty List." And they're high-charm, high-energy guys who know their way around musical theatre, and are frequent participants in the Broadway by the Year and other series at The Town Hall in New York: enter Mark Kudisch and Jeffry Denman. No sappy, sticky Christmas sentimentality for two of the most ebulliently jolly fellows this side of the North Pole. And, as suggested by their CD's title, Happy Merry Hanu-Mas, Hanukkah gets some spotlight, too. Oh, in fact, there's even a dizzying mash-up of one oldie from each holiday that soon spins back and forth and back again (as will your head) like a super-revolving dreidel.
Two smile-inducers originate from TV specials seen annually for many moons: "Christmas Time Is Here" incorporates the Christmas pageant narration heard in "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and Denman the dancer delightfully steps up the happiness quotient with "Put One Foot in Front of the Other" from "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" to make it a sparklingly sweet major highlight.
With bits of buddy banter and bluster, it feels like a party album, complete with kazoo duets, a ukulele, and the sounds of tap-dancing. Even when snidely "grousing," they're gleeful, as in solo comedy numbers "My Simple Christmas Wish" (Jeffry) and the plight of the "Lonely Jew at Christmas" (Marc). That "happy merry" breezy tone stays strong in the cool-dude attitude so that tempo is brisk like an invigorating winter breeze, even on the usually tender "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." They toboggan through their repertoire with a chipper, offhand manner and brio. Their smooth, polished and solid singing voices are not upstaged by their own hammy indulgences or characterizations. But it's not a showcase for vocally wowing the listener. It's about entertainment and having a good time. That's what it seeks to do, and it succeeds.
There is also an unlisted bonus track for a headstart on New Year's Eve with the traditional number and letting the band get in more on the action. (It includes record producer Mike Croiter on drums.)
After a few days next week at the Signature in Arlington, Virginia, the Holiday Guys take up residence at the York Theatre to ply their trade and the tricks thereof.
Sunny spirits can indeed cut through winter's chill and warm up stale staples. The very sunny Sandy Bainum still believes in Christmas and makes it work. Musical director Lanny Meyers (who also wrote the CD's closer, the blissful "Blessings of the Season") inspires with sparkle and shine in arrangements and orchestrations that are punchy and full of musical theatre splash rather than the heavy sugar coating that ossify some traditional holiday albums. Production values are as strong as the family values embraced in the sincerely rendered hearth-and-home-sweet-home moments. Well-sung, confidently cozy, it's an album that does not overplay the nostalgia or pep of the season. Oh, I suppose a Scrooge would find some sentimental indulgences, but they feel real. There isn't much of the religious aspect per se, as almost all songs are on the secular side, but "Silent Night" makes a strong and elegant impression, combined with "Peace" by jazzman Horace Silver, an inspired choice.
Musical theatre writers are well represented. Right off the bat is an Irving Berlin doubleheader with the entwined wishes for a "Happy Holiday" and one more "White Christmas," with "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" a bit later. Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones's "I Thank You for Your Love" makes an appearance (it's almost a Christmas miracle that its directness doesn't cloy). Frank Loesser's "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" is often taken as a lament, presuming a snowball's chance in hell "to ever be the one you chose." Instead, it's a bit coy, with more hope. I think it works better with some more doubt, but I respect this rarer approach. "Be a Santa" from Subways Are for Sleeping (Jule Styne/ Betty Comden & Adolph Green) is simply terrific, building and bustling in the best musical theatre style of showstoppers. Spoiler alert for those late-to-the-party guests who might admire the cheer and charm of the vocal partner on this number, listed as Guy Haines: this holiday guy's name is as real as whatshisname from the North Pole alleged to be real. It's Kritzerlandlord Bruce Kimmel, the enthused record producer himself. The multi-talented Kimmel also wrote the title song, which is a comical cutie about someone who's grown up celebrating Christmas and is now dating someone Jewish and ready, willing, and able to do a holiday combo platter. Temptation to make this Kosher hamminess with overplaying is avoided and it's a bright joy that prevails.
The distinctive, darling voice of Euan Morton is a welcome holiday visitor for "Christmas Gifts" (from Joe Raposo and Sheldon Harnick's musical A Wonderful Life, based on the similarly-tiled film perennial). At first he solos, and later they combine voices, but I would have liked more of that as their blend is appealing. Sandwiched between is Lan O'Kun's "The Best Gift" for Sandy's solo, but it might owe a bit too to the phrasing and treatment of Barbra Streisand's version without quite feeling like re-gifting in the same wrapping paper. Generally, Sandy has the skill and savvy to make songs her own by unpretentiously playing it straight and being invested, letting her heart come through and her attractive voice ring out.
And the orchestra is just sensational, taking her wherever she needs to go and kicking it up a few kicky steps or providing a rich blanket of graceful support on the ballads. Only on their "Sleigh Ride" do things feel a bit ordinary, and I would have liked more hills and valleys on that so-smooth musical sleigh trip.
There's much to recommend and relish on this album, and take that from one who is already overdosing on other, less convincing Christmas music this year. She brings her season's greetings in person, featuring this material when she graces the Metropolitan Room in Manhattan, December 17. That sounds like a pretty wonderful Christmas gift of a class act to me.
Adding five of his own recently written originals to the canon of holiday fare, two Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn usual suspects ("The Christmas Waltz" and "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!"), Jason Paul Curtis swings into winter with aplomb. He's got a trio called Swinglab and two tracks with Swing Machine, a large-group ensemble. In his CD debut, Jason unabashedly tips his hat to the neo-crooner retro rompers, and tosses in a couple of Cole Porter standards. His originals take on the sounds and sights and meteorology of the season, and romance and relationships, including reluctance about shopping ("Blue Friday"). The stance is decidedly male hipster with a gal and confidence firmly in place. The approach is the oxymoronic brash intimacy that brings forth breathy, close-mic phrasing and moments of buoyancy and bravado. A worthy musketeer of the many in this vein, he wears the mantle better than some, due to an enthusiasm and industriousness.
He enthusiastically takes his turn with the oldies, like Porter's "In the Still of the Night" (with more fondness than fretting that love might be unrequited). Maybe that last line where "still" is rhymed with "chill" makes a case for it being winter? Speaking of endings, his sometimes seem anticlimactic, just nestling into a groove or repeating the last line a few times, but rarely a big finale instrumentally or vocally. And, on a few tracks, the band seems to be marking time or filling time loosely during the instrumental break, rather than taking it to the next step of energy or a whole other side trip of melodic diversion. I became impatient for the singer to return with his personality and charm. While the CD begins with a big-band big-bang theory of grabbing the ear with a splash, with only one other track with the larger group, there's a slight anticlimactic feeling for a while. However, the singer has moxie to spare and can create a snuggly bonhomie to compensate. Emulating his predecessors in his writing and performing, he's like a kid jumping unhesitatingly into a snowbank and wafting some snowballs of his own.
Like the apostrophe missing in the album's name and its title song, Lovers Holiday is a bit careless, intentionally or not, with some words in the well-established lyrics. Why change Cole Porter's "August moon burning above" to an autumnal one in "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To"? The original image of "candles gleaming inside" seems a more memorable word picture than "candles burning inside" in "The Christmas Waltz." If you consistently change the lines in Irving Berlin's "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" from "What do I care?" to "Why do I care?," doesn't that change the whole meaning of the lyric from saying you don't care about the cold weather into that you are bothered by it and can't figure out the reason? Certainly not reason to put a lump of coal in his stocking, but it's distracting and puzzling.
The title song is the strongest of the originals, both musically and lyrically, with a family man's perspective and a loving attitude. But the others all have something going for them, if not as major league in development and heft. (Mariah Carey's Christmas song as a reference point and dutifully complimenting a lady's hair and then wanting that acknowledgment acknowledged don't totally cut it for me.) Nevertheless, it's refreshing to have some material that isn't the same old Christmas stuff. This likeable guy and his zeal brought me to his website where I found him doing more of the same with a long trail of homemade free samples of his pre-album singing in the tradition. It's like stumbling onto a full bag of Christmas presents that had been slowly piled up. I'm happy to make the acquaintance of this crooner/swinger and look forward to more from him as he finds his own way.