Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

'Tis the season... Part 2
Reviews by Rob Lester

See Part 1 of holiday music review here.

We covered a big batch of holiday recordings last week; but wait, there's more!

Rock-It Science Records
CD, Digital

The high-energy work by Broadway's singers and musicians make wintertime sound so appealing that it seems as if–to twist the name of a musical that didn't come along in time to participate–some like it cold. The minority of the 14 tracks on Broadway's Carols for a Cure, Volume 22 are Christmas carols this time, as the other selections are original pieces, nods to Hanukkah and New Year's Eve, and the season's secular standbys (and standbys in some shows' companies participate!). As with past editions, with sales benefiting Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, there's much variety and vitality.

Among the satisfyingly entertaining entries are two solo performances that are especially striking, both arranged by Ben Cohn. Corey J, who portrays the younger Michael Jackson in MJ: The Musical, radiates reverence in a rendition of "Angels We Have Heard on High." The other arresting voice belongs to Mars Rucker, understudy in A Strange Loop, offering a strange choice of material–in that it has no obvious connection to the season. It is "Misty," a classic from the Great American Songbook, justifying its adoption at its very end with a few added words that give a nod to Christmas.

One fun tradition musical theatre followers can look forward to with this series is when casts do something to specifically reference their show. This year, members of the 1776 begin their feisty, fitting choice of the gospel-flavored "This Little Light of Mine" (often used to express upbeat determination at gatherings focused on civil rights) with in-character dialogue. Since Funny Girl is the story of a famed entertainer whose Jewish identity was part of some of her presentations, the cast opts for the old "Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah," performed with gusto and a wink. Two in the gleeful group have been on stage as central figure Fanny Brice and also play instruments: Julie Benko (guitar) and Ephie Aardema (guitar, co-arranger). Also joining in is ensemble member Leslie Blake Walker, co-arranger and writer of the special lyric that mentions the names of one of their current cast's stars and one of its characters, ending with a plug to come to their production.

There's a tribute instead of trouble in River City when residents, including star Sutton Foster and kids, add pep with a capital P in saluting The Music Man's writer Meredith Willson with his Yuletide famous forecast, "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas." Getting the final word, if you play this recommended recording in track order, is the hit show that has contributed tracks for every edition of Broadway's Carols for a Cure since it began in 1999. It's, of course, The Phantom of the Opera, which had already been around for just under 12 years of Christmases back then, and its current folks robustly recall "The 12 Days of Christmas." It's nice to note that the longtime producer of these recordings, Lynn Pinto, joins the chorus for the musical's "swan song" in these volumes, for the "swans a-swimming" and other gifts the lyric lists. The recording itself is the perfect gift for Broadway fans. All the past editions are available at the charity's website for a merry holiday season and a way to recall past theatre seasons.

CD, Digital

O come all ye faithful to the concept that Christmas stories bring the most comfort and joy when they are big-hearted and uplifting, rather than merely merry, and that they are best served in the form of musical theatre! Here's a sumptuous new cast recording of the sort of hope-filled show we've been hoping for. Canceling Christmas is based on the true chapter of American history, during the dark days of World War I, when the government urged citizens to spend their usual gift-buying budget on war bonds, and non-essential manufacturing plants should pivot to making things for the war effort. A toy was not deemed a useful product. Fortunately, A. C. Gilbert, a major toy company figure with some clout and cleverness, convinced U.S. Cabinet members of the value of playthings. No wonder Gilbert's efforts also inspired a TV movie in 2002 and a prior stage musical by Ron Lytle, both using the title The Man Who Saved Christmas. Now we have another take on it to take to heart, with some romance, feminism, politics, and a large mixed chorus mixed in.

A very appealing and accessible score is on display, the work of Bruce Greer, who wrote the music, simpatico arrangements, and orchestrations and Keith Ferguson, creator of the lyrics and book. (Included is some dialogue which helps us follow the plot.) Max J. Swarner stars as Gilbert, with a bright vocal sound and strong presence, especially on the soaring, neatly rhymed "You Can Build Your Dreams," a quintessential song with a mission (accomplished) to boost confidence and banish naysayers. "Everyone Should Fall in Love at Christmas" is an adorable burst of bliss and Ainsley Carmichael and Andrew Hoster are sweetly spot on as the besotted couple. Other highlights include the group number "We Know Better," reprised as "You Knew Better." There's plenty of potent singing by adults and children, some of it lavished on iconic Christmas material that is woven through effectively.

The musical has a website with more information, where the physical CD can be purchased and those who might want to produce the show can get perusal material. Co-writers Greer and Ferguson have also worked their magic on adaptations of It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol. Their Canceling Christmas, presented this month in Texas and New Mexico, proves that, like the human spirit, the joys (and toys) of Christmas will survive grim times and Grinch-like voices of doom. Enjoy this new look at an old story that is an "old-school" musical in all the best, most life-affirming, merriest of ways.

Club44 Records
CD, Digital

With her elastic voice that can flow, float and flutter to decorate a note and make phrases melt into each other, Jane Monheit's comfy-cozy crooning is pure pleasure, kindling every warm wish for the holiday season. On the shorter side with just nine songs, The Merriest makes up for its modest quantity with real quality and is a worthy sequel to her 2005 winter-themed set, The Season.

"The Christmas Song" begins affectionately with the famous line which is its alternate title, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire," but gratifyingly showing up in the middle is–surprise!–the almost-always-dropped verse many don't know ("All through the year we waited..."). This version of the 1945 perennially recorded item is the first I've heard to omit the word "Eskimos," which has recently been tagged by some as a derogatory term; instead, we hear of "folks dressed up from head to toe."

A playful but relaxed vocal duet with that reliable charmer, smooth-talkin' John Pizzarelli, on "That Holiday Feeling" adds to the spirited doings. Unfussy festive feelings abound in such selections as "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." In the more heart-tugging category "(Christmas) Stay with Me" is pleading without being mawkish so as to risk dampen the overall party spirit. This piece, a partial revision of the lyric to "Stay with Me" from the score of City of Angels to become Yuletide-specific, shows the singer's sensitive side whereas The Merriest's tricky-tempoed title track written by Arnold and Connie Miller showcases her jazz chops.

Giving the collection a plush feel are the tracks with strings arranged and conducted by Wayne Haun. He is the co-founder of Club44 Records, a newish label, but one that already has an impressive–pardon the pun–track record, including another holiday favorite reissued with bonus tracks this year, Christmas at Birdland. Now with two Jane Monheit sets in as many years in their catalog, let's hope we can get another soon; in a recent interview, she revealed that she wants to record big band arrangements of Broadway songs. My fingers will be crossed for that, but, meanwhile they're pressing "Repeat Play" for the mellifluous The Merriest.

CD, Digital

Are you looking for a kind of conservative Christmas collection of non-sacred songs? One that is nostalgia driven, very full of the "usual suspects"? A recording that treats them with respect–with sweet treatments and tempi that recall the way they were most famously done, with genuine feeling, feeling like musical comfort food? And do you want a variety of vocalists often accompanied by a full orchestra? Well, then you might want to check out Hollywood Christmas because it checks those boxes, with some creativity to, here and there, be thinking outside the box.

Note that the title Hollywood Christmas does not mean that the songs are mainly from movies (a few are), but rather that some of the recording was done there with mostly singers and instrumental soloists from that area. The symphonic orchestra tracks, however, were recorded separately, far from Tinseltown–in Budapest. If you feel like singing to some of the layers of accompaniment, this generous-length recording has the sparer tracks of almost everything included, too, so you can replace the vocal soloists, or just enjoy the basic musical topography and moods.

Conductor/arranger/pianist/producer Richard Williams brings together soloists and choruses for super-familiar stuff, with an emphasis on the jolly ("Happy Holiday," "Jingle Bells," "Frosty the Snowman," "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and a few of the chipper things about that bearded fellow from the North Pole) as well as calmer sentiments ("Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "I'll Be Home for Christmas," and "White Christmas," plus the lovely "Somewhere in My Memory" from the film Home Alone) and a couple of pleasant originals by Mr. Williams as instrumentals. His billing "Composed by..." is unfortunately set together with his other credits on one line, in a style where the syntax would suggest he wrote the songs rather than the arrangements. No one having even a passing familiarity with holiday classics would think one man wrote all these famous songs, but it doesn't help that those composers and lyricists' names aren't listed in the CD's packaging. Oops.

Some items in the bounty are arranged in agreeable medleys. It often feels like the "stars" and focus are not the singers–skilled though they may be–but the band/orchestra or the arrangements. The vocalists come off almost like game, well-drilled understudies who might err either on the side of caution or over-enthusiasm. Still, if you're looking for a bright and sunny set with a "party" feeling while decorating the tree, or want a break from something too grand or too bland, then Hollywood Christmas could be the flavor your mood might favor.

Real Gone Music
CD, Digital

In 1964, while Steve Lawrence was starring on Broadway in the musical What Makes Sammy Run?, he and wife Eydie Gorme were in their second decade of releasing albums, separately and as a duo. That year, they issued That Holiday Feeling!, with both solos and duets, all secular material. Now its original set list of 12 songs expands to add eight more tracks that had been recorded over the years. One has emerged for the first time: "The First Noel." It's a stately version by Steve that is a welcome discovery. Two other selections also honor the Nativity: his robust "Go Tell It on the Mountain" and Eydie's dignified "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear." Another nice touch is to have both his and her solo versions of "White Christmas" together on one collection: her especially sincere one from the 1964 set and his pleasingly polished take recorded four years earlier.

A snazzy vocal romp showcasing Eydie's exciting belt, featuring a dazzling ending, comes with a sort of "adopted" seasonal song with Broadway origins: "My Favorite Things." But not everything is a super-famous chestnut we've heard "many times, many ways"–to quote "The Christmas Song" handled handily by Steve. He is a co-writer (with Berl Rotfeld) on his solo, the tender "Let Me Be the First to Wish You Merry Christmas" and the two singers collaborated with Joe Mele to write "Hurry Home for Christmas," one of their cute duets. Another is That Holiday Feeling!'s title tune, written by another Joe, their conductor Joe Guercio, and another married pair, Bill and Patti Jacob (extra points to my fellow Broadway followers who recognize their names as the songwriters for the 1968 musical Jimmy). Yet a third Joe, writer Joe Marchese, shepherded this project and provides great, detailed liner notes tracing the careers in a photo-filled booklet that comes with the CD. He joined fond forces with the stars' son, David Lawrence, who produced this, remastering the sound from original tapes.

Whether it's Steve and/or Eydie, with or without a choir, this expansion of a class-act classic makes this special season sparkle. In short, if you want to be sure to get that holiday feeling, get That Holiday Feeling!. I have a feeling you'll be feeling glad you did.