Holiday Albums Part One
Now in its fifteenth year of bringing Broadway cast members into recording studios to raise a joyful noise, spirits, and money to fight AIDS, Carols for a Cure is a sure-fire annual item on any theatre fan's Christmas list. Not that they're all carols. But among the tracks on the two discs, each with 11 selections, there are changes of pace and surprises. And, as always, there are moments of mischief, some brashness and bombast, a nod to Chanukahand some star power with leading players, not leaving everything to the ensembles. As usual, some choices seem genuine but generic or random rather than theatrically-inspired ... and some are matched or tailored to the tone of the Broadway show represented. A few more quieter, gentler gestures would have been welcome in this cascading cornucopia of Christmas sound and furyand, mostly, fun. Chances are taken, so I never expect to be entranced by each entrance of an idea. But there's much to cheer and cherish.
Faith Prince, accustomed to giving mean-spirited marching orders to orphans in the Annie revival, cheerily summons the perky young troops (with variety and grandly glib belting style) withwhat else?"Children, Go Where I Send Thee." It's a terrifically lively, feisty performance. Cheeky irreverence reigns when Kinky Boots creative cast member Jennifer Perry provides a radical rewrite of "Carol of the Bells" asyou guessed it"Carol of the Boots," as she joins in the sizable group with solos by star Billy Porter and the unmistakable voice of bookwriter Harvey Fierstein. It takes careful and repeated listening to catch all the words flying by, but it's a cute reboot.
Pippin's endearing couple, Rachel Bay Jones and Matthew James Thomas, sound appropriately from a long-ago era, their folky take enhanced by such instruments as bamboo flute as they duet on a traditional air, "The Cherry Tree Carol." A recent Great White Way entry whose plot involves a rabbi, Soul Doctor offers a rewritten lyric to Adam Sandler's "The Chanukah Song," with participant Eric Anderson providing the substituted Broadway-specific name-dropping of the many Jewish contributors to shows (rhyming "Ragtime" with "Sondheim," etc.).
Rodgers & Hammerstein's perky holiday song "Happy Christmas, Little Friend" gets a Cinderella-tively rich rejuvenation, with Rebecca Luker starting things off, and attentive R&H fans will note a quote, instrumentally, of another of the team's classics, "My Favorite Things" which became somewhat of an honorary holiday song.
There are several originals here by representatives of various casts. Indispensible returning multi-tasker musician Jason Michael Webb turns in solid work: "Bring a Little Joy Into the World" for British-accented denizens of Matilda; and admirable, admiring pastiche Motown sounds for the show of the same name, with "Deck the Halls, It's Christmas" leading into a scene-stealingly sensational Marva Hicks bringing it home on "Come On Home." With sassy lyrics (neatly and gleefully rhyming Broadway names, wanting to be a "tranny" to be bewigged as Annie, etc.), George Howe and the album series' longtime producer Lynn Pinto do the wit with the words for Webb's setting for the fabulousness strutting by gossip guru Perez Hilton, recently guesting in Off-Broadway's Newsical ("Perez' 2013 Holiday Dishlist").
The coup de theatre showpiece is a Chicago encapsulation sensation, the brainstorm of Richard Rockage and Paul C. Vogt, who plays Santa (a Merry Murderess fires those "warning shots ... into his sleigh"). Chicagophiles will file this under F for funny and fantastically familiar ("I'm gonna get me a whole bunch of elves!"). Many memorable lines and licks, vamps and Velma-isms from Chicago, with a Christmasificiation, are a holiday hoot and a half. Bravo!
And, of course, there are the carols, some traditional and glorious in their stark beauty and vocal harmonies, others juiced up-up-up. Depending on whether you think of the sacred songs as sacred cows and tinkering/electrifying/alterations sacrilegious, or excitingly modern, redefining relevance, you'll occasionally be enthralled or appalled. Some may be exhausting or exhilaratingor, oddly, both. For me, the most successful comes from Michael Wartella and Derek Klena leading the "faithful" from Wicked with "The Holly and the Ivy" growing new roots of youthful exalting exuberance. The adventurous and the theatrically inclined will find much here a hallelujah-worthy high-energy happening.
Email or text Santa, tweet it from your sleigh, or shout it high from the mountaintops: High up on the Christmas list of musical procurements for wise men and women, I suggest, is Natalie Toro's treat of a treatment of yuletide specialties. If impatient for Mr. Claus or Cousin Rudolph to ship or shop, just click the pic, sample and you'll be sold. Although Toro released the CD single teaser of Just in Time for Christmas's title track last year, the seven-track CD (pause to lament "only seven?") adds more merriment and pure joy to the world on an equal level. Yes, it's a smaller holiday meal than most platters, but feels like a feast.
This performer, known to theatre fans for In the Heights, A Tale of Two Cities, Les MisÚrables and, yes, Zombie Prom), is a too-rare commodity: she has a big voice (make that a huge voice), but manages to almost always sounds warm and personal and intimate while blasting or blaring. Somewhere between girl next door and earth mother, she has a life-affirming and audience-embracing quality that informs and colors everything, even when making the rafters ring and sending chills up and down spines with vocal prowess. And she has a sense of humor and humbleness that humanizes and enriches whatever comes with a wham from the diaphragm. Here, she does some wise adjusting to the intimacy of a recording studio environment without making us feel cheated of her hearty and heartfelt sound.
Naturally (and I do mean naturally), Natalie's Noel-oquence adds more hearth/home snugglies and snazziness, exemplified with those chestnuts a-roasting for a fireside chat in "The Christmas Song." When she sings of the "tiny tots with their eyes all aglow," you can see their eyes glowing, sense her smiling at the sight, her eyes bright as any Christmas tree light themselves. And, hooray, she sings the rarely done little introductory verse ("All through the year we've waited, waited through spring and fall ..."). The whole album feels like a celebration.
With Irishman Ryan Kelly (Celtic Thunder), the duet of Frank Loesser's "Baby, It's Cold Outside" gets a different musical wrapping and feel. Too often a forced-coy, tiresome flirty fumble, it's hip for a change and the Irish-style flavors and new beatand their chemistryreheat this and it's (miraculously) pretty and and pretty sexy. Recording star Jon Secada is her other guest, teamed on an "I'll Be Home for Christmas," which succeeds, against conventional wisdom, to be upbeat and make sense that way, avoiding the usual treacle and teariness. Somehow, the hope-killer major caveat line"... if only in my dreams." And they share some Spanish-language additions and affectionate quips.
On the one religious track, a mash-up (can you use that term for carols?) of "Ave Maria" and "O Holy Night," her enthusiasm seems occasionally to bring near-shrillness on a couple of notes, or a surprisingly rushed speed, but it's a brief exception. The peppy "Once Upon a Christmas Song" (with a kids' chorus and a couple of snippets of other holiday faves) and "Our First Christmas Together" bring major cheer and simple sunniness that feel really genuineif only all holiday recordings and TV holiday specials attempting such unbridled happiness could have taken lessons from her.
Toro is reinforced by a small team of musicians, arrangers, and producerssometimes, as with trumpeter Edward B. Kessel or keyboard player Bruce Wangsantur or James Lum (guitars, bass, percussion), they do it all. She'll celebrate the release of this album at Birdland in Manhattan's theatre district this Sunday, December 8. Just in time for Christmas, with time to spare.
Sincerity and sweetness swell as the sound of Dreams of Christmas wafts through the air. Sincerity via singer Megan McClannan Reardon's direct emotional celebrate-the-simple-joys attitude is striking, nicely matched by the spare accompaniment of piano and guitar. And the sweetness is the real deal, not the artificial ingredient-bolstering kind. No gush and mush here, but the voice is lush and lovely. Oh, there's sentiment for sure, but sans soupy string sections and jingling bells, and no choir is required for things to sound surprisingly "full." And full of heart.
Megan's background includes performing in regional theatre, running music programs/shows with children, and much work for the Disney organization. That's not surprising, as there's a fairy-tale sense of wonder in her honeyed phrasing, and it comes off as soft-focused and convincing. There's a tendency to rely on melisma in shaping and stretching her notes, but it isn't egregious to the ears of this melisma-resistant listener. That is, it doesn't feel like showing off or overly ornamental for its own sake; there's some emotion behind it.
Pianist/producer Joseph Itaya and guitarist Kevin Nash create attractively puffy clouds of snuggly musical moods and accompaniment, although I would have liked more solo spotlight on the guitar work. The numbers are mostly the usual Christmas suspects of the secular sort, but still there's "Still Still Still" and a couple of other nods to the sacred which are done with appropriate awe and aplomb. Stevie Wonder's "One Little Christmas Tree" is a cute addition and "Christmas to Me," written by the pianist and Jolie Vigen, is a welcome new item to me, crystallizing that sincerity and sense of appreciation that is the strong suit throughout.
On that note, what could capture all that more ideally than Irving Berlin's "Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep)"? I'll count this album as a blessing this year: an example of "less is more" in production and ample evidence that if a caring singer wraps herself and listeners in a blanket of brimming believability, even the "same old/same old" can sound fresh and fully felt.
More holiday fare next week. And some cast album music, too.