Sound Advice Reviews
Oh, forget the calendar! Here's our reason to extend the holiday season: After publishing our two columns covering Christmas-related fare, a few more relevant arrivals came our way. Two are cast recordings in the long line of musicals taking inspiration from, and liberties with, "A Christmas Carol," Charles Dickens' tale of ghostly spirits coming to haunt and teach. Like ghosts of Christmas Past, each musical vision appeared years ago and did a bit of a disappearing act until suddenly reappearing last month, reshaped for media through a "necessity is the mother of (re)invention" pandemic perspective. And if centuries-old Christmas carols and Yuletide pop hits of decades past provide historical perspective and rekindle warm Christmas spirit, First Snow first and foremost has both.
To those who say that it's too late to be in a Christmas state of mind or that we don't need yet another version of Charles Dickens' oft-adapted story of "A Christmas Carol," I have two words for you:
With the Broadway stars populating the cast recording of Estella Scrooge, we have a very worthy new contender with songs by Paul Gordon, a man who's no stranger to adapting literature, having tangoed with Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Oscar Wilde, and a fellow named Shakespeare. Dickens devotees will derive extra appreciation for the notable nods to many other names from the author's worksthe biggest borrowing coming from "Great Expectations" (a song sharing the title of that novel is one of the strongest pieces in composer-lyricist Gordon's varied score). He collaborated on the script with veteran director/frequent collaborator John Caird (whose son Sam Caird was on the team for the earlier version known as Little Miss Scrooge).
I admire the seemingly endless variety of inventive takes on the tale of Scrooge which has such strong themes, emotional pull, and dramatic power that it can sustain tinkering and tweaking and major overhaul. And what a haul even a small portion of the versions would be to watch and hear: We've had movie melodramas, madcap musicals, Muppets, Marcel Marceau's mime, and Mickey Mouse as Bob Cratchit (with the type-casting of Donald Duck's uncle, Scrooge McDuck, as you-know-who). There have been stage shows, radio shows, one-man shows, and television shows, as well as operas and ballets. Ebenezer Scrooge's grumbling words have been heard in the voices of Dickens' own great-great grandson Gerald Charles Dickens, Anthony Newley, Tony Roberts, Tony Randall, Walter Matthau, Mr. Magoo, and many, many more. And then there are the sequels and prequels.
The mean man can be an unfeeling female: in gender-flipped TV movies, Cicely Tyson was Ebinita Scrooge, Susan Lucci was Ebbie Scrooge, and Vanessa Williams was Ebony Scrooge. Some recent stage productions in England and America have been casting their show with a woman Scrooge, too. That brings us to a musical named for its protagonist Estella Scroogebut she's not quite in the same category. Estella is instead a cold-hearted female modern-day descendent of the male misanthropic miser, and the rotten apple doesn't fall very far from the foul family tree. Betsy Wolfe's characterization avoids caricature, presenting her as stern and steely at the start, stubbornness still showing a glimpse of the vulnerable heart under its scar tissue. And there's more than a mere audio glimpse of her graceful singing voice. The melting of her meanness is, interestingly, more gradual. In the novel "Great Expectations," Estella is the ward of daunting, bitter Miss Havisham who never got over being left at the altar, teaching the girl to never be vulnerable and to avoid romance. But in this musical, Estella encounters the book's protagonist, Pip, who was in love with her in their youth. The intertwined plot thickens for the Dickens could-be couple.
Each of three ghosts gets a splashy solo showpiece. The casting is fortuitous. Carolee Carmello cavorts and cackles mischievously, addressing money-mad mogul Estella as "Wall Street Baby Superstar." The initial spirit to materialize, she's a version of Miss Havisham, but given the first name of Marla, analogous to Marley, surname of Ebenezer Scrooge's dead partner/first ghost to visit and warn him in "A Christmas Carol." Next up is the ghostly gateway to Christmas Past, played by Sarah Litzsinger, who coincidentally was part of this Christmas musical's Christmas pastin an earlier incarnation of the show when it was known as Little Miss Scrooge. (It had staged concerts in 2012 and 2013, with musical supervision by Brad Haak who's also aboard again here in that role.) This apparition gets to amusingly protest that she's merely a "Minor Character." And what a treat to come back to Christmas Present when Ebenezer himself is the guy to guide and exult that "It's a Beautiful Night"in a lyric with references to many Christmas songsand it's sung with such flair by Danny Burstein.
The score encompasses a range of styles and moods: determined ("Not on My Watch" for Clifton Duncan, so impactful as the principled Pip); dark and demented (Estella's deceptive claim that her profits will "Trickle Down"); jarring (a graveside screaming indictment by a deceased child robbed of a full "Life"; and gentle ("Best and Worst of Times," especially the reprise for the Cratchits, endearingly done by real-life couple Megan McGinnis and Adam Halpin, also veterans of Little Miss Scrooge's 2013 cast and the Gordon/Cairn Daddy Long Legs.
The 2020 revised production got most of its attention for the daunting challenge of putting it together as hybrid, piecemeal, starting with rehearsals by Zoom, then filmed almost always with one actor at a time in front of a green screen, with the director guiding each individual remotely from overseas, visuals and castmates layered along the way. For an audio recording's consideration, we can be content to focus on just what we hear. And that offers plenty for which to cheer and add to any season's Christmas cheer.
Back in 1996, a fun and friskyand also quite sweetmusical theatre offspring of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" came to be, commissioned by Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma's producing director, James Rocco. Not to be confused with similarly titled adaptations, it was in the tradition, but not exactly traditional in all its rethought characters. Oh, Ebenezer Scrooge was his usual selfish self (one lyric appropriately rhymes his first name with his essence as a "mean old geezer"), but reset in the 1950s rustic American territory with musical genre being country-western. In A Country Christmas Carol the Ghost of Christmas Present is none other than Santa Claus in a ten-gallon hat, and the long-toiling Scrooge employee Dickens wrote as Bob Cratchit is gender-reassigned as single mother Bobbie Jo who lives in a trailer with Tiny Tim and a second child.
Demo recordings were done, but never fully polished or prepared for commercial release. Jump to 2020 when the health crisis crushed plans for a live stage production, and opportunity knocked to allow using the demo's studio cast CD as the core of a broadcast. With additions and polish, the theatre piece itself was "recast" as a throwback to days of radio drama, thus the "on Air" addition to the title of this entertaining release. It made its radio debut, with linking narration and dialogue, a few weeks ago, on December 19177 years to the day of the first publication of the Dickens novella.
The engaging songs (composer Albert Evans shares credit for the lyrics with bookwriter Ron Kaehler) give considerable focus to a Scrooge nephew, Dwight, who leads the sung exposition ("Marley County Christmas"). He also competes in a talent contest that's key to the plot and gives an excuse for songs, including interpolations of some iconic public domain Yuletide things. Song-wise at least, this version is more spunky than spooky, as the visiting spirits don't scare up any big solo songs. Spirits of the alcoholic beverage variety, however, are sung about by Dwight ("I ain't been sober/ Since early in October" he admits with a twang and a toast in "I Gave Myself a Bottle for Christmas" during a very brief43 seconds!but nifty number). Bart Shatto shines here and elsewhere as the good-natured good ole boy indicating that being a curmudgeon doesn't run in the family.
The Cratchits also get juicy slices of the musical pie. As patience-tested Bobbie Jo, solid Heidi Karol Johnson channels full-throated, hardy country divas. Delightfully doing double duty as two sets of siblings are Jack Romano and Christy Carlson Romano (the Cratchit kids and, in the flashback, Scrooge and his sister when they were youngsters).
Audrey Lavine, as Lavinia, brings to the table both a take-no-guff grit and frank philosophy (commiserating with Bobbie Jo in their duet about surprise events and challenges, "Life Goes to Show Ya"). And check out her nailing the lack of sympathy for Scrooge in the rewardingly rambunctious send-off called "Goodbye Old Dog."
Director Rocco, who's also been a theatre performer and singer, gets a quick-stepping cameo with the writers for a zingy Nashville-ized moment with the old hymn "We Three Kings." I trust that you don't need a spoiler alert before I say that there is a happy ending with that old miser reformed (G. Wayne Hoffman encapsulating "Scrooge's Epiphany" with glee and a gallon of the character's new milk of human kindness).
Charmingly showcased with this recording is a very accessible, marketable mix of knee-slappin' and heart-touching songs. The appeal goes beyond the novelty of the musical style chosen and the changes in locale, era, and character types suggested. A Country Christmas Carol embraces the values of community and generosity (of spirit and financial), deftly bringing that home (or should I say "down home"?). A tip of the cowboy hat to one and all.
With each year's avalanche of Christmas releases that cover so much of the same ground, it's a relief when hopes of expecting the unexpected are rewarded. Artists with jazz sensibilities are often the ones deserving of a bow for letting us hear old music in new ways, and such is the case with the creative renditions on First Snow. But it's no outsiders' first foray into religious territory (eight carols here) for striking vocalist Adriana Samargia and nimble-fingered pianist Robert Prester; they work often in the genre, most recently performing and arranging music for virtual services for a church in their Philadelphia-area home base. Both have had backgrounds in various styles, and this adventurous outing shows their ease and originality as much revitalizing songs born as light pop as with the Christian canon about the night a Savior was born. In the latter category, jazz coatings in instrumental breaks don't truly telegraph as a"Nothing Is Sacred" policy. There's a reverent approach to the words that is not upended during the instrumental breaks, but they do add a hip, looser approach to the age-old melodies. ("Comfort Comfort O My People" also has electric bass, and three tracks include percussion as well as bass-electric or acoustic.)
The two-panel liner notes in the physical CD compliment the complementary combined talents but don't mention that the Prester/Samargia pairing is also a partnership as husband and wife. The family affair goes further with the pleasing presence of the featured voices of her grown sons, Josef and Jacob Samargia, soloing members of the group blending artfully on some of the tracks here, The Parson Brown Singers. On their harmony-swirled a capella "Blue Christmas" with counterpoint pointing up the pathos, Mom has upped the emotional ante with her considerable added original material referencing 2020's nixing of travel (the present-day "We'll be doing what's right" rhymes with the currently impossible verb, "reunite"). On a very much brighter note, "Joy to the World" lives up to its goal of celebration proclamation, exhilaration palpable in high gear with instrumental trio accompaniment.
Musically astute Adriana Samargia's graceful voice can fold itself into melodies almost like an instrument, with an ethereal vibe. However, it's frustrating that not all lyrics come through crisply on less familiar carols. I don't know if more attention is needed to diction or miking or mixing or some of each. She has a high voice that can effectively project something akin to a childlike guilelessness or an elegant formality. And that can burst intosurprise!breezy scat-singing on "Masters in This Hall," something that began as part of a French opera in the first decade of the 1700s. Both setting off sparks of zest, singer and pianist whir through a fleet "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" that is jubilant without being juvenile.
First Snow is named for its one original Prester composition, an attractive and atmospheric piece with a wordless vocal lofting through it like a gentle wind. It's a welcome new companion for atmospheric older pieces like "In the Bleak Midwinter" as we find ourselves in the current seemingly bleak midwinter. But pretty music can be pretty comforting, and judiciously employed jazz brings a little more joy to the world.