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We need a little (more) Christmas

View Rob's other 2011 Holiday CDs


Ghostlight Records

While usually busy making toys, elves only occasionally make appearances on Broadway. In the very early days, when shows ran ever so briefly, what's considered as the first "long run" of a musical was a 50-performance life of something called The Elves, playing from March through May in 1857 (the same year the song "Jingle Bells" was written). Elf, the 2010 musical, had a roughly similar open/close span as a limited-run holiday attraction.

This musicalization of a 2003 film tells the tale of Buddy, who grew up at the North Pole, adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus, all the while thinking he was an elf. It comes as a surprise to Buddy that he's a human—and Buddy's existence comes as a surprise to his biological father when the adult son shows up. Dad, to whom Christmas is anathema, is as unwelcomingly grouchy as Buddy is bubbly and na├»ve and a Christmas booster.

Though some critics gave the show the kind of pans not reserved for baking Christmas cookies, the less Scrooge-like of folks who like bouncy Broadway musical comedy packed with pep and sparkle will find the cast album a spiffy spin. Be prepared for some relentlessly "cute" capering and seemingly forced or force-fed sunshine. It's partly the plethora of percolating, party-time wall-to-wall sunshine of the orchestrations that ring and ding and jingle every bell and whistle in fast-tempoed arrangements. And it's partly that the character of Buddy is a gleeful, goofy guy on a high and on a mission, singing from a happy state of mind he wishes to encourage others to adopt, and he's prominent in so many of the songs. If the seemingly tireless Sebastian Arcelus, starring as the festively frisky fellow, doesn't wear you out first, he may well wear you down and you'll be converted. I was. Oh, come, all ye faithful fans of uncomplicated musical comedy frolicking fun.

Composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist Chad Beguelin, the duo who brought us The Wedding Singer, show much craft here. Though hardly groundbreaking or deeply moving or riotously laugh-out-loud funny at every turn, melodies are solid and imminently tuneful, and lyrics are polished with care to the rhyming, with some rewardingly ripe with multiple rhymes to relish, and some taking advantage of the subject matter's key words and phrases. A few memorable, ear-catching examples:

"What's the big brouhaha/ Over 'fa la la la'/ It's a childish ordeal/ I mean, flying reindeer? Let's get real"

"We go together like 'sugar' and 'plum'/ A perfect duo like rum cake and rum."

"Couldn't Santa see/ What a fantasy/ He appeared to be ...So why don't we make a pact/ A solemn pledge to be exact/ That Santa's real in fact ..."

Though a few ever-so-joyful and triumphant songs seem to go on a chorus or two too long, there are others that are welcome respite with sass or sarcasm or grousing. There's the frustration of the young woman who dates Buddy, as terrific Amy Spanger scores with a well-delivered note to self: "Never Fall in Love (with an Elf)." And there's "Nobody Cares About Santa" sung by a gaggle of out-of-work costumed Clauses—called "Fake Santas" and reprised by George Wendt as the "real" St. Nick. Broadway veteran Mark Jacoby is the buried-in-his-work dad who opines that Christmas day just gets "In the Way." While the (intentionally) hard-sell "Sparklejollytwinklejingley" crams mucho merry Christmas spirit into one high-energy song as its would-be one-word title jams in happy images, I find a couple of less frantic antics more endearing. The simpler urging to sing "A Christmas Song," with its likeably crisply staccato moments spicing up the bubbling brew, has something resembling the sweet charm of Bye Bye Birdie's "Put On a Happy Face" in its encouragement to cheer up. (It's adorable the first time around as a duet when winsome Arcelus wins some points with Spanger's character who is converted with concerted effort that seems effortless. However, when it's reprised near the end with the company, it feels more like a generic "big" overblown, oversold number. A little noodgy cheerleading goes a long way.)

Other highlights come in two mother/son duets by Beth Leavel and Matthew Gumley, who was 13 years when show was on Broadway. One the score's rare calm, vulnerable moment—revealing their wishes for Dad to be more attentive ("I'll Believe in You")—and then the buoyant discovery that (surprise!) "There Is a Santa Claus." Though as a long-suffering neglected wife and dutifully doting mom, the actress doesn't get to show the levels of comedy and verve we've observed before, she's a welcome presence. And the impressive young Mr. Gumley has a splendid and professional, soaring voice absent of any kiddie coy annoyances.

To complain that Elf is too giddy and rollicking is almost like being surprised and ungrateful that the plateful of sugar-sprinkled gingerbread and chocolate is kinda sweet or that bearded guy in the red suit and the sleigh seems unnecessarily jolly. This comes with the territory and if you can't take the sweet, stay out of the Christmas kitchen and stop bitchin'. Some of it may be poured on pretty thick, or occasionally feel as thin as Santa isn't, but, like his sleigh and reindeer, a lot of this really flies. Beguelin's lyrics are beguiling, with just-right sprightly music that may get you/keep you smiling, thanks to Sklar and (especially) the star, Arcelus, who sings with infectious joie de vivre.


Moscow 57 Entertainment

Hot off the press, barely in time for Christmas, but reflecting the too-soon cold season that can seem endless, is Ellen Kaye's new Ice Wine. Subtitled Songs for Christmas and Dark Winter Nights, it's being released officially with a concert tomorrow night (Tuesday, December 20) at Iridium on Broadway near West 51 Street, below Ellen's (no relation) Stardust Diner where the singing waiters are ever-busy belting show tunes and pop.

Ellen has been on my radar off and on for years, recalled years ago lending her talents as the recorded voice for an original song for a high school's play while she was a regular at theatre district watering holes. She's recorded albums called 2 A.M. and 3 A.M. and now the time has come for a new one. She's popped up in clubs, bars and restaurants, such as her own "pop-up restaurant" this month with the same name as her record label, Moscow 57. (Ellen is the daughter of the owners of NYC's iconic Russian Tea Room). She's a confident singer who can wail or croon and who, notably, is unafraid to explore and linger in blues territory. Even the five numbers with the word "Christmas" in the title often have the Christmas lights on dimmer switch or blinkin' blue. If you've already overdosed on the peppy holiday songs of forced glee, with sugar-coated versions of life, something grown-up, upfront, laid-back or a back-to-reality trip may be just what's needed as an antidote.

Things start off in a lusty/longing, gutsy groove of R&B, with a simmering "Merry Christmas, Baby," but getting to the "merry" feeling is an uphill battle at times. Immediately following is "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," the lonely, forceful song introduced almost 50 Christmases ago—and still owned—by Darlene Love, whose feistiness and drive can create some optimism for a happy ending. Ellen's version, while similar, comes off as an even more glee-free plea. From the Broadway musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas comes the hard luck tale of "Hard Candy Christmas," the wistful woe-fest about how it feels when things look bleak, but one is holding on to hope, to cope with "barely getting through tomorrow." This interpretation of this fine, restrained song mixes its stiff-upper-lip sensibility with a more rationed amount of cautious optimism than others have brought. (Note the self-doubting coloring of the word "Maybe," suggesting a sigh and wry "why me?" laugh as possible plans for life changes are listed.) Ellen's throaty, careworn version of the classic "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" has more than a hint of its original Meet Me in St. Louis context, with a tear dampening the hoped-for holiday cheer, even suggesting (but not singing) the gloomier original lyric lines. ("Have yourself a merry little Christmas/ It may be your last.")

But all is not bleak or bluesy, bad news-y. Ellen opts for a hip and sly slide into blithe spirits with Steve Allen's swinging "Cool Yule" getting a fairly enthused—if slightly aloof—workout. Happiness is more unbridled with a genuinely ebullient and brisk-bright reading of Irving Berlin's "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" from 1937. But there's a dearth of warmth in the pop from later decades, culminating in the chill of "Cold," the Annie Lennox song, and the lonesome, haunted "Hounds of Winter" by Sting. Things stay decidedly downbeat with the Steely Dan song "Book of Liars" referencing the season with "Santa Claus came in late last night/ Drunk on Christmas wine." Some of these tracks may be Christmas party party-poopers, but there's a time and a place and a need sometimes, when days may not be merry and bright, to wake up and smell the egg nog. The sad songs here are done with intensity and integrity and maturity. Interestingly, Joni Mitchell's "River" flows less mournfully than I've oft heard it, and the line "I made my baby cry" sounds less riddled with guilt and self-chastisement. I miss the drama and cry of pain, but it's well sung.

Accompaniment here includes the excellent and sensitive pianist Rich Iacona, who caught my ear some years ago, and trumpeter Glenn Drewes, who has been a presence in many Broadway pits (and, thus, cast albums). While there are strings and reeds, bass and percussion, harmonica and two familiar names providing harmony/back-up vocals on some tracks (jazzman Cleve Douglass and Jackie Presti, whom I wish got more spotlight), it's Ethan Fein who is the multi-tasker. He's on guitar and banjo, is the arranger, musical director and co-producer (with Seth Goldman and the singer).

With the glut of Christmas albums and winter-related songs, this one stands out as decidedly different and thoughtful. When all the artificially sweetened joy starts to cloy, and one wants catharsis or commiseration, drown your sorrows the Kaye way with a serving of Ice Wine, in or out of season. And when things brighten up, or need a push in that direction, enjoy the upbeat tracks. The CD ends where bitter may meet sweet, with the classic ballad break-up send-off, "I Wish You Love," with hoped-for "bluebirds in the spring" as well as sweeter summers: "and, in July, a lemonade."

- Rob Lester

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