A Broadway Diva Christmas (The Julia Miles Theatre, 424 West 55 St.) and two theme concerts this week, two of them free and one a benefit for an important cause from the producer of this week's remarkable The Secret Garden.
Like the varied gifts which make up the contents of Santa Claus's sack, A Broadway Diva Christmas is very much a mixed bag. And I have mixed feelings about it, although many are merry. The show is directed by Michael Duling; he co-produced with Tom D'Angora. They've done Divas I've Done, at Studio 54 and are back for more diva doings.
Almost all of the holiday songs, mostly secular, are the ones you've heard over and over (and over) over the years on recordings, piped through the mall and elevators, etc. The surprise element comes from these gifts of song dressed with energized musical treatments, making for familiar gifts in new, interesting wrapping paper. The show began previews the day before Thanksgiving and officially opened on Sunday, December 4th. The set list may not be quite "set" - it was not in the program I received at the December 2 show, although it was provided in the press packet without a promise of who would sing what. Reports by others who have attended early performances indicate that some of this has been "subject to change" as it says on the page.
Ellen Greene shows the same quirky, odd-but-compelling energy she brought to her best known role, Audrey in the original production of the musical Little Shop of Horrors and in the subsequent film. Her intense, highly stylized vocalizations with deep tones and high, girlish, gleeful ones as mixed together didn't totally work for me, and she seems to be playing a character even when she makes a speech welcoming the audience and explaining how the show came to be. (It is one of the few spoken moments in the proceedings, which are more a series of taking turns entering, singing, and exiting.) Her split personality "Lotte Lenya meets Betty Boop" (in the same song at times) is nonetheless intriguing, and her effort to milk both comedy and drama prove milkful. Her naughty, sexy "Santa Baby" in a tight, shiny gold dress is an audience pleaser. Her braver, melodramatic renditions of Christmas standards are more challenging, at times challengihng the audience's sensibilities.
Kathy Brier (Hairspray) provides soulful, gutsy renditions of holiday fare, mostly in the R&B and pop styles. Her rendition of Joni Mitchell's "River" is an early highlight, but she created sparks elsewhere, too. Maya Days, who has played the title role of Aida and Mimi in Rent, shows range. She may have taken a page or two from the style handbook of pop divas like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, but she can also be effective when easing up on the melisma and and singing more simply.
Marla Schaffel, who played the title role in Jane Eyre offers a swinging "The Man with the Bag" and wisely underplays the comic lament "Lonely Jew on Christmas" from TV's irreverent animated series "South Park." Marla is the most straightforward, non-gimmicky presence, pleasing but perhaps overshadowed. She doesn't have as much of the belting under her belt, as she came to the Christmas party a bit later, otherwise engaged starring in the tour of My Fair Lady until last week, so I suspect she'll shine even brighter after a few performances.
Christine Pedi, known to theater fans for her years of work in the trenches of Forbidden Broadway, is - simply put - a sensation. Her first number, "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" is an instant click with the audience. She cements this with a series of celebrity impersonations for "The 12 Days of Christmas" in whatever order the audience members du jour pull them from a hat. Quite a hat trick and quite a star performance all the way, including a chance to have a breather from comedy and croon something serious. She proves that she can sing straight from the heart, not just the funnybone.
The Ghost of Christmas Present may be a slight influence of TV's "American Idol" style singing in parts of the proceedings. There were times I felt that the three Jingle Babes (Tedi Marsh, Kate Pazakis and N'Kenge Simpson-Hoffman) were on different planets. Although their voices blend well, their stage energy is so wildly different and they don't seem to connect with each other very much. As far as visuals, it's not a high concept show. Though perforing in a traditional theater space, this is really a concert/nightclub show and might work better in that setting. Some of the women might have been dressed more flatteringly or colorfully for a festive Christmas (there was a lot of black, but there were costume changes, and as in her other contributions, Miss Pedi seemed to have the best batting average). Some overproduction in lights and sound (echo chamber, anyone?) call for restraint, but mostly it's well done. The onstage band is terrific. Percussionist Christian Linsey and a pair of Bens (Ben Zwein on bass and Ben Trigg on a cello) join pianist-conductor Brian J. Nash. Nash is a smash; he's energetic and radiates good spirits - not just the Christmas spirit, but definitely that. The arrangements are mostly his, and they show great versatility. (Ellen Greene's arrangements are by her husband-musical director, Christian Klikovits; they collaborated on her first solo CD, co-produced by the producers of this show). The band gets a chance to jam a bit at the end, after a singing curtain call finally brings all the women together. It's a real shame this grand band doesn't get more time to solo.
For an intermissionless not-on-Broadway concert that's under 90 minutes, $70 seems like a hefty price, taking a bite out of your Christmas budget. But much of it is diva-licious. A Broadway Diva Christmas plays at The Julia Miles Theater, 424 West 55 St. through New Year's Eve (except Tuesdays - even a Diva must rest). Tickets at www.TeleCharge.com or the box office. Website: www.abroadwaydivachristmas.com.
Meanwhile, in addition to the other holiday shows around, I want to mention three one-shot events in the coming week. Neither is in a theater or club. Think library and community center and retail settings!
Miracle Scheduled: Tickets Available
A special holiday event called Miracle on 13th Street: A Broadway Holiday Holiday Celebration will be held on Sunday night, December 11 at 7:00 pm. It benefits the charity "God's Love We Deliver," as well as The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center, 208 West 13th Street, where the concert takes place. Produced by Jamie McGonnigal, who this week brought The Secret Garden back to full bloom, the show will present two members of that concert cast, Max Von Essen (Dance of the Vampires, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) and Matt Cavenaugh (Urban Cowboy), plus Tony-nominated original star of The Secret Garden, Alison Fraser (recently in Dedication, or The Stuff of Dreams) and many other stage favorites, from Capathia Jenkins and Harrison Chad (both from Caroline, or Change) to Megan Hilty and Robb Sapp (currently Glinda and Boq in Wicked). They will be joined by Sara Chase (Slut!), Julia Murney (Lennon), Anthony Rapp (Rent) and Randy Redd (Ring of Fire). Music direction is by Mark Hartman (Avenue Q, Chita Rivera: The Dancers Life).
God's Love We Deliver prepares (and delivers) hot meals and offers nutrition counseling those whose medical condition and finances prevent them from cooking or buying sufficient healthy food. They also offer nutrition counseling to those with serious illnesses, and have served many adults and children with AIDS. Their staff includes many volunteer cooks and truck-driving delivery people.
Admission to the December 11, 7:00pm concert is $20. Tickets are available at www.gaycenter.org or by phone, 212-620-7310.
New - That's Right - New Holiday Songs
Prior to the 13th Street event on Sunday, you have time to catch something free and festive at The Donnell Public Library, 20 West 53rd Street, where there's a 2:30 pm Holiday Songbook this Sunday. It's part of the monthly series of free concerts of mostly new and upcoming musical theater writers that's been going on for 15 years.
If you can't bear to hear any more "Jingle Bells" and have "The Little Drummer Boy" drummed into your head, rejoice! These are all new, original songs by writers who work in a musical theater style. Some writers from earlier Songbook concerts will make return appearances, including the talented Nick Levin, Peter Morris, and the songwriting team of Ryan Cunningham and Joshua Salzman (whose musical I Love You Because is a treat in any season). Other writers whose work will be heard: Ed Alstrom, Maxine Alstrom, Carla Arnone, Cassandra Cabinski, Michael Colby, Patrick Dwyer, Isidore Elias, Paul Fujimoto, Hal Hackady, Marcy Heisler, John Kavanaugh, Randy Klein, Ben Moore, Peter Morris, Michael Roberts, Michael Scheman, Steven Silverstein, Fred Stark, Cheryl Stern, Michael Stockler, Matt Ward, Craig Wilson and the late Dick Gallagher.
Besides some of the writers themselves, the singers include (as of press time): Jill Abramovitz, Nina Alstrom, Kerri Bracken, Cassandra Cabinski, Isidore Elias, Tommy Femia, Chris Gunn, Lynnelle Johnson, Karen Murphy, Adam Sansiveri, Cheryl Stern, Christianne Tisdale, Melanie Vaughn and Craig Wilson.
The series is hosted with flair and an evident love for new writers by director/producer John Znidarsic through Arts and Artists at St. Paul's. The concerts are normally held on a Tuesday at the end of each month, and will revert to that tradition in January (they take the summer off).
A Look Back At The CDs Of 2005 ... Live!
Another ongoing series, this one spotlighting what's new in recordings, is the Any Wednesday series at Tower Records near Lincoln Center on West 66th Street and Broadway. The December 14 at 6 p.m. "holiday party" will find many performers who previously sang from their "just-released" CDs at the weekly in-store performances returning for an encore. Among the number of confirmed performers are many we've been telling you about all year in Sound Advice, including singer-pianist Eric Comstock (who has a solo set at the store December 7, also at 6 p.m.), cabaret favorites Jeff Harnar and Barbara Brussell, and our first "Under The Radar" disc-overy, Jasper Kump. Also on hand will be Lisa Asher, Philip Chaffin, Joan Crowe, Catherine Dupuis, Fyvush Finkel, Brian Gari, Deborah Latz, Valerie Lemon, Eidan Lipper, Barbara Rosene, Toli Reid, and David Vernon and vocal group Boulevard East.
A special part of the evening will be devoted to songs from the new holiday CD, The Odd Potato, the Chanukkah musical. Judy Kaye, currently starring in Souvenir on Broadway and Maryann Plunkett, along with musical director Jay Kerr, will be featured in this part of the concert.
Head downstairs where this kind of music plus all the Christmas albums surround you! The Any Wednesday series is produced by Tower's gregarious Bart Greenberg and will continue after the holidays with the new vocal and show albums of 2006.