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Holiday Albums Part Two


Also see last week's Holiday Albums Part One

JIM CARUSO, BILLY STRITCH & KLEA BLACKHURST
A SWINGING BIRDLAND CHRISTMAS!

Birdland Records

If you're looking for pep this Christmas, boy oh boy, do I have the CD for you! A Swinging Birdland Christmas is the cheer to chase the chill. There's no slush in their forecast, as songsters Jim Caruso, Billy Stritch and Klea Blackhurst—entertainers to their toes—energize and enthuse. Their season to be jolly feels truly celebrational and happily hip, as opposed to the forced gaiety of manufactured stock shlock arrangements heard elsewhere, shoveled carelessly upon us like so much hurriedly cleared snow.

Recorded live before an appreciative audience, this show—which returns to the Manhattan midtown theatre district venue this season for a run—is fun galore. There are only ten tracks—I recall from a previous viewing a lot of cute banter amongst these primo comical cut-ups not preserved here. A taste of the camaraderie between capricious Caruso and stylish Stritch is still felt: the longtime pals carry on at Birdland's Cast Party open mic on Mondays and were part of Liza Minnelli's world tour/Broadway project. Much of that show focused on the work of Kay Thompson, and her inventive and snappy vocal arrangements begin and end the festivities. "It's the Holiday Season" (which she also wrote) starts things off with all three singers and the band (Billy does double duty as pianist throughout). The Thompson romp adapting "Jingle Bells" brings things full circle, part of a "mashup" surveying memorable treatments of the ditty as recorded over the years (such as the fleet and frenetic Streisand revamp). Most choices in between are old standbys, but do they fall prey to the shrug and the yawn? Not on their watch. Caruso cheerleads throughout the gala, putting his own splashy spin on John Pizzarelli's "Santa Claus Is Near," melodically a near relative to his "I Like Jersey Best."

They rarely drift from their non-mushy mission to swing and bring the party home, but the respites for sincerity and sentiment are dreamily refreshing. Stritch stylizes a "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" that could melt snow and hearts with its take-your-time tempo and tender touch. There's also a single token religious song amongst the secular celebrating of all things snowy and Santa; the track featuring "A Child Is Born" is a gorgeous side trip to seriousness. The oft-boisterous and bubbly-over-blithe, spirited Blackhurst may be a revelation to some when she calmly croons this in a sweet and purer tone, evidencing a more "legit" voice that pleases mightily. The track includes a luxurious instrumental set-up and mid-song interlude featuring violinist Aaron Weinstein playing a sleek "Silent Night" (the song title is not listed on the set list). He's a formidable presence here, whether adding beauty or drive (he gets a generous-length showpiece spotlight to fly through a "Sleigh Ride"). He also wrote (with Sharon Douglas) an entire companion countermelody with new lyrics ("Manhattan's nice over ice"), handled deftly by Billy, to dress up the Cahn/Styne standby "The Christmas Waltz" sung by Klea, who joins him with that new material near the end ("They really swing in the snow, their trumpets blow three-quarter time"). It's becoming my favorite here.

The band is completed by drummer Carmen Intorre, bassist Paul Gill, and guitarist John Hart (whose solos are particularly gratifying and engaging). Christmas really takes flight and soars in this feel-good Birdland treat. Give in and grin.

Note: The CD is available on Birdland's website, as well as at their gift shop, and the show is on their stage numerous times during the season, including Christmas Day itself.

Liz CallawayLIZ CALLAWAY
MERRY AND BRIGHT

(5-TRACK EP)

Just as Christmas is always a cause for rejoicing, so, too, as proven by time, is the release of any CD that Liz Callaway brightens. While Merry and Bright is just a five-song EP with one of its tracks previously issued, this proves once again that some good things come in small packages. The cardboard sleeve reveals a small treasure-chestful of chestnuts with the kind of trademark clear, intelligent singing style or vocals that have been a reliably constant trademark of Liz Callaway's recordings. Disarming in its directness, the non-showy lady's approach always cuts to the chase or cuts to the quick, quickly, giving a real-feel understanding of lyrics and emotions.

This is someone who "gets"—and gives—the spirit of Christmas, comfortable with the spiritual and the secular. Awe is an element too often missing in action in many singers' renditions of the religious songs announcing the birth of Jesus; Liz transmits that, giving the needed weight and respect. Her duet with sublimely voiced sister Ann Hampton Callaway, weaving two such pieces together ("Silent Night" and the powerful "Mary, Did You Know") is rivetingly rapturous. Both sisters sound superb, their combination distinctive and potent.

Speaking of family, son Nicholas Callaway Foster has arranged and sings with her a particularly enjoyable and captivating track. Enamored of a capella singing, he does wonders with an inventive take on "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," adding layers of their voices and a hip, invigorated spin. Let's hope this recent college grad sticks with it. It's a very cool exploration that shows (maybe surprisingly) that the oldie can get a new wrapping and not just coast on "cute." And how great to hear them together! More, please.

One of the handful of recent holiday numbers that is joining the ranks of the old standards, "Grown-Up Christmas List" (David Foster/Linda Thompson Jenner) is also on the short list. With her emotional yet tasteful treatment, there is ample evidence of the "less is more" setting-by-example and mantra she must subscribe to, as evidenced by each release of solo album or her many guest appearances on songwriter albums or cast recordings. I've heard quite a few people tackle this number and usually they milk it to mush, sounding unwisely demanding and playing up the "power ballad" feel. That kills its potential as a wistful wish: wise, clear-eyed and a plea of hope rather than anthem-like intensity. There's a maturity to her phrasing and stance, suggesting the understanding that the utopia is just that: an unlikely perfect world. The imperfect rhymes in this song always bother me, but the Callaway approach pulls me in with its drama.

In a variation of the semi-sneaky holiday tradition of re-gifting, her "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" has been previously available on the now 15-year-old multi-artist collection A Broadway Christmas. The other four selections were produced by the artist herself-and wonderfully so. You'll feel merry if someone is bright enough to put Merry and Bright in your Christmas stocking.

GrinchDR. SEUSS' HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS
WORLD PREMIERE RECORDING

(WITH MEMBERS OF ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST)
Masterworks Broadway

For many, Dr. Seuss' curmudgeonly mean, green grouch called The Grinch is as much a part of Christmas as a stale fruitcake. Succeeding generations have taken the winter's tale of the cold-hearted guy to heart since the popular children's book first appeared in 1957. It became an oft-repeated animated TV special in the middle of the 1960s, a record album with narration by Zero Mostel in the 1970s, another TV special in the '80s, a stage musical production at the Old Globe in the '90s, and a feature film at the turn of the century. That stage version was on Broadway in the holiday seasons of 2006 and 2007 and has played around the country. Now, belatedly, here is the premiere cast album, including some of those who did the roles on Broadway. And it's fun and frenzied and quirky and sweet—just like Seuss stuff should be. Busy and bustling it is; be prepared for an almost relentless rampage of words and fast-paced nuttiness. More musical variety and tone changes would have been welcome, as it seems like a long and bumpy amusement park ride. But, the main point is, there's a fair amount of amusement along that jaunty journey.

The devilish delight Patrick Page in the title role comes through entertainingly as he takes a page from skills honed in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark as a big, over the top bad dude (and goes green again). A major highlight is "One of a Kind," the self-congratulatory, show-bizzy number, full of gleeful splash. The deep voice resonating, the drop-dead acidic remarks, the self-love worn like medals—it all works to grand comic effect.

John Cullum as the older version of a dog named Max, in flashbacks and narration, is uber-endearing and anchors the show, giving it heart and perspective. At age 83, he retains a distinctive voice, warm and fuzzy with appealingly crackly corners, commanding engagement and sympathy. He's nicely matched by Rusty Ross as his younger self and, when they trade or share lines as commentary blurs with re-enactments of the past, it can be sweetly impactful. They share "This Time of Year," a reprised anchor of song. Abigail Shapiro as the little girl who gets to the Grinch's heart and soul acquits herself nicely, not falling into the trap of overplaying the "cute card"; her voice comes off as more genuinely sweet than forced or overly directed. Ensemble numbers jump and sizzle, with little that could be called murky or mushy.

The orchestra is rollicking, with plenty of crisp examples of individual well-chosen instruments' accents and mini-phrases standing out to make statements. Veteran Michael Starobin is the savvy orchestrator, with Joshua Rosenblum multi-tasking as musical director, conductor, vocal arranger-and producer. Instrumental sections are zingy and ear-tickling, although a couple may be unnecessarily indulgent in time taken for mood-setting or reinforcement in this audio-only experience. But there's much jubilation and wonderful wackiness provided instrumentally and the cast is game and presents appropriately broad vocal characterizations.

Composer Mel Marvin and lyricist/bookwriter Timothy Mason's solid and snappy work is supplemented by two numbers with music by Albert Hague (Plain and Fancy, Redhead) and Dr. Seuss' own words, from the well-remembered TV version: "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" and "Welcome, Christmas." From the movie, James Horner and Will Jennings' "Where Are You, Christmas?" appears as a bonus track given over to ensemble member Tori Feinstein, who alternated in the role of Cindy Lou with young Miss Shapiro in last season's Madison Square Garden mounting. A Marvin/Mason group number, "Once in a Year," is the other sprightly bonus item.

Record producer Robert Sher gets a real theatrical, kid-friendly ambience where we are pulled into a world of sound and silly. His work jelling Cullum's folksy storytelling with the plucky, playful plot twists and turns and musical firecrackers is admirable. It's what it needs to be: a slam-bang visit to another world, recreated for disc—dizzying, but ultimately darling and dazzling.


- Rob Lester


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