Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Another Christmas


Once more, you'll enjoy the yuletide season more with some newly released seasonal offerings. As far as repertoire, the usual suspects dominate, but the tried-and-true on track lists also provide some new twists. Like the latest actor to step into character shoes to play a familiar character in yet another revival of a classic play, creative individuals can find new nuances and fresh interpretations.

BROADWAY'S CAROLS FOR A CURE
VOLUME 16: 2014
Rock-It Science Records

The holiday season always reflects the current Broadway season when the annual Carols for a Cure comes along. The Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS charity's two-disc sets show Broadway and Off-Broadway cast talents interpreting perennial favorites. Current cast members of long-running shows participate and the newer shows are represented, if they're in place by the recording dates many weeks before Christmastime.

This year's festivities start out with folks from the Best Musical Tony Award winner, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, daffy while being ever peppy and proper with their British accents. Though not identified in the packaging as that most simple of seasonal songs, it's "Jingle Bells," with special lyrics by the track's pianist and arranger, Mike Ruckles. Bryce Pinkham, Jefferson Mays and the cast sing a story complete with—you guessed it—a murder. They add some sound effects and mad tempo changes. Oh, what fun it is to ride in an off-course roundelay. While the more serious, sentimental and sacred selections dominate, the second disc also starts off with high-energy wackiness as the Cinderella company, with Sherri Shepherd, drives into high gear with a raucous original number written by Jason Michael Webb (he's the arranger/writer/musician represented elsewhere on this and prior editions of this valuable series). We get over-the-top noisy boisterousness and screechiness in song and spoken stepmotherly wisdom. It's all perhaps enough to shatter some nerves or glass slippers, with a too-simple refrain that they won't refrain from insistently repeating until the once-upon-a-dream scenario abruptly stops. Pop culture's Perez Hilton, who popped up in NEWSical The Musical Off Broadway, trades gossip and gushing for griping and sniping in another rare comic moment. He takes on David Friedman's "My Simple Christmas Wish" about immediate gratification in a show biz career and presents a fine whine that hits the target(s).

This annual Christmas package has the more familiar and featured singers' names on the front cover. Given first billing is a man who was "just" the songwriter for his show when the album was being readied, but now he's joined the cast for a while—of course, that would be Sting, who leads a large chorale from The Last Ship in the evocative "Soul Cake." The impassioned yet stately rendition is an album highlight.

As is often the case with this series, the lead actors of Broadway casts can be missing in action, and it tends to be more about ensemble work. The Jersey Boys toast the seasonal joys just over the state line with "Christmas in New York" by Tony Pompa and Jana Jillio, a Jersey woman (who has played keyboards for the show for more than four seasons and here she also takes the vocal spotlight for this solo). Not a Jersey boy in earshot. And, while On the Town is centered in and on New York City, its characters are just tourists, so it makes sentimental sense for them to go home for the holiday with "Christmas Eve in My Home Town." Another kind of Christmas Eve saga, with more (too much, I think) sizzle is "Another Christmas Eve" (also by the aforementioned Webb). It's one of two contributions by the Motown cast, the second being "I Am Here," written by one cast member for a featured cast member who had to leave the show because of health problems, getting the support of many cast members singing this religious affirmation. Piping up with clarity advocating charity and doing "One Good Thing" at a time are the age-mixed voices of Matilda, betraying a bit of shrillness and strain when reaching for high notes in the high-minded earnest directive.

While many choices may be the same old/same old (and in the case of carols, of course, that means very old), versions of these overly familiar odes to the Christ child prove to ultimately be the most warming and satisfying. If you don't mind "forgetting" that it's a Broadway-generated endeavor where some tracks simply sound like choirs (excellent choirs), a fair amount of what we're listening to doesn't require any inside knowledge of Broadway and its denizens. Choices includes Aladdin people donning the robes of "We Three Kings" and The Lion King represented by "O Holy Night." Speaking of Kings, what a nice touch it is for Jessie Mueller to lead the Beautiful way: The Tony winner for her portrayal of Carole King in the jukebox bio-musical about King and Gerry Goffin has a special number. One of King & Goffin's most rewarding collaborations, their daughter Louise Goffin, is the co-writer of Beautiful's selection, "New Year's Day." The performer/writer (and a producer of that show) paired up with Guy Chambers for this one.

A Scrooge more into Christmas and charity than anything else (excuse the oxymoron) might wish for more secular material and upbeat cheer tied to more Broadway shows' themes and music styles. But there's a good sampling. The best of both worlds is when the Les Misérables company weaves bits of the musical's songs into "I Saw Three Ships." Quite the production; its complexity is welcome. In an interesting turn, we find company members from Cabaret, that musical which takes place in Germany and concerns some Jewish characters, giving us both a traditional Chanukah piece ("Mi Zeh Hidlik") and, in German, "Stille Nacht" ("Silent Night"), still potent. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good nacht.

Visit the Broadway Cares online store where you can buy this, the previous volumes individually or in a full set of all 16, and many other giftable items.

JOHN SCHNEIDER & TOM WOPAT
HOME FOR CHRISTMAS

For a crisply refreshing and non-cloying antidote to the Christmas sugar plums of song interpretations, spend some time with John Schneider and Tom Wopat. A certain demographic of TV fans of a certain era will immediately have their interest sparked by this reunion of the stars of the good ol' boy sitcom "The Dukes of Hazzard." And while the old camaraderie of co-stars who stayed buddies informs the jokey folky interaction (the disc includes bits of teasing banter), that's by no means the be-all and end-all. No. The two are super-comfortable with not just each other, but with the material. They find a nice balance between laidback and emotional involvement. They jest, but are invested in the tender moments and have a ball with the lighter fare. The duets, which dominate, have a sense of passing the ball back and forth as their very compatible voices combine with the ease of the best sidekicks this side of Violet and Daisy (not Daisy Dukes). The humor and attitudes come off as cool rather than corny, hip rather than hokey. Though they are putting up their "Dukes" days for memory-jogging, let's not let that overshadow their output as recording artists and on-stage performers.

Some may find the male bonding and asides and jibes a bit much. They go as far as taking Frank Loesser's "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and changing the first word of the title to "Johnny" for what's described in promotion materials as a "bromance" take on the good song about bad weather togetherness. But they always seem to truly be having a whole lot of fun, whether they're getting together for a "Sleigh Ride" or warming up to "Cool Yule"'s hipster lingo with that Steve Allen jazz dude fave.

Broadway veteran Wopat has for quite some time proven himself a formidable presence with an ease and unpretentiousness that is immensely appealing. The ultimate good guy, he's down-to-earth, and grandeur couldn't stick to him if it tried. A touch of rough-hewn qualities in the voice give him that "true grit" natural believability. It serves him well when he turns wistful, as on his solo of "I'll Be Home for Christmas (If Only in My Dreams)." No false note is struck. But most tracks he participates in are loose and lithe. As on his other solo CDs in recent years, he shows he can swing in a sophisticated way, and he's sticking with treatments that live in a very accessible jazz vibe. He's back with bassist-producer David Finck and pianists/arrangers Tedd Firth and John Oddo—giants all. (Instrumentation varies from song to song, some selections having strings, some woodwinds, for example.)

John Schneider, whose album output goes back to years of vinyl and country-flavored tunes, also has an old Christmas album on his résumé. And it still suits him like a red suit suits Santa. He's especially cheery and chill in "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" as he strolls in and out of the visitation announcement with the equally mellow Tom. And on his sincere solos he shines: The truly sweet love song "Even the Snow" captures the awe for the disarming magnetism of an idolized love interest ("Even the snow falls for you"). But his mature, non-preachy take on the Jimmy Van Heusen/Sammy Cahn "The Secret of Christmas" rings true and makes us truly consider its message of the season of love and goodwill being a way of life, not a seasonal anomaly. It also makes the case that the secret of Christmas songs feeling revitalized is, like good theatre, in the casting. Find singers who are chemistry-creating co-stars. Then they can convince us that they're conversing for real with their own thoughts, despite the well-known words. They won't rely on copying what's been done and thus might feel stale. Add to that arrangements and instrumental playing that feel kinetic and interactive (with the singers and bandmates).

The upbeat numbers feel infused with genuine glee and the gladness to be alive. In a (chest)nutshell, this album is a just-right mix of comfort and joy.

MICAH YOUNG
COME IN FROM THE COLD

THE CHRISTMAS ALBUM

It's still too early in the season for this Christmas music fan to have overdosed on commercialized and candy-coated glibness and holly-jollies. I have barely begun to hum and my days still feel merry and bright. But I know that when that sugar shock comes and my inner humbug bugs out I will be craving to go back to basics: hymns and carols that are done in spare, purer ways. And then I'll be even more appreciative than I already am with Come In from the Cold, a lower-profile holiday gem. It brings us back to the awe and majesty of the holiday without being weighed down by stodginess or, shall we say, a holier-than-thou exclusionary feel. This lovely item from multi-tasking Micah Young feels as unforced and genuine as a family sitting around singing Christmas carols. Yes, that's because it is. Mother, father, a daughter, and one son, piano and conducting by the son named Micah.

Micah Young is a musical director/pianist who has played keyboards in the pits of Broadway on Spring Awakening and White Christmas, and has been a sub on quite a few others, in additional to work Off Broadway (current credit: musical director of Pageant, which has been recorded as an album) and in regional theatre. As this album makes abundantly clear (in all senses of the word), he's a multi-talented guy. He arranges, orchestrates, conducts and is executive producer of the CD, and wrote music and lyrics for three attractive pieces: the title song, "My Christmas Is You," and "Guard the Night". Like other aspects of this project, his original melodies and words are unpretentious and understated and two more examples of things truly fitting together.

And it seems talent runs in the family. David, Molly, Nancy, and Adam Young provide the vocals, with Adam on guitar for three of the eleven tracks. The vocal blends and sounds can be quite glorious or delicate and ethereal. Balance and separation are thoughtful and don't draw attention to themselves. David is featured on "In the Bleak Midwinter" and its appropriately stark beauty is almost breathtaking. Molly is in the spotlight for the majestic "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming."

Come In from the Cold features other sublime musicians with musical theatre experience: Clay Ruede is on cello, as he has been on Broadway for two earlier versions of Les Misérables, Catch Me If You Can, The Color Purple, and others. Playing violin and viola is Maxim Moston, who's done work on On the Town and Cinderella. Chris Biesterfeldt (See Rock City...) takes guitar duty on one number, "What Child Is This?" ("Greensleeves"), which was co-arranged by guitarist in the family, Adam. Micah's impressive piano skills serve to establish and enhance moods, becoming just propulsive or percussive enough when needed and gliding over the keyboard in a more gossamer manner that suggests the most agile and graceful of ice skaters who you have no fear will slip or struggle for a moment.

If you're at risk for turning cold to Christmas music, I would prescribe Come In from the Cold? Revel in its grace and glorying.


- Rob Lester


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