It's that most wonderful time of year, when ears perk up for the sound of sleigh bells, credit cards swiping and the dropping of a sack-load of holiday albums. But let's be honest, unless you're a rabid fan of the artist taking the time to lay down 10 or so Christmas tunes on one record, most of these collections are overwhelmingly tedious, with only an occasional gem to be found among the treacle.
So how does one make a successful yuletide collection?
It looks like the Five Friends Foundation has figured it out with its first DFW Actors Give Back project, the impressively produced 15-track CD Holidazzle 2009.
Holidazzle is a real treat, a cup of warm nog spiced up with two shots of brandy and topped with whip cream—and sprinkles. It features some of the North Texas theater community's finest voices, several rousing and memorably original arrangements (the best are by genius piano man Lee Harris), and something that is sorely missing from too many Christmas albums: Variety.
There is a theme that emerges in Holidazzle, aside from the obvious one about the season of Santa. The artists have chosen a number of songs that go beyond the typical Christmastime plea for peace on earth and goodwill toward all.
For instance, in Harris' striking arrangement of the standard "Carol of the Bells," the song's more commonly sung lyrics are jettisoned in lieu of the less often heard "this is the year/peace will appear/hatred will cease/love will increase." The vocalists—Stephen Bates, Philip Bentham, Debbie Brown, Connie Brown-Kegg, Stan Graner, Jeff Kinman, Sally Soldo and Wendy Welch—sing in gorgeous harmony, also using their voices as backing percussion. Harris also tinkers, successfully, with the song's signature timing.
The peace theme is really driven home in the album's two best solo numbers. Patty Breckenridge does "My Grown Up Christmas List," which is best known from Amy Grant's version. Breckenridge, in a clear and beautiful performance, sings with earnest feeling on the lines "no more lives torn apart, that wars would never start." Denise Lee does "Someday at Christmas," a song first recorded by Stevie Wonder and covered by the Jackson 5, among others. It has a beautiful message, with the hopeful lyrics "men won't be boys/playing with bombs like kids play with toys" and "we'll see a land, no hungry children, no empty hands." Lee nails the emotion. Backing vocals (by Megan Kelly Bates, Philip Bentham, Vonda Bowling, Stephanie Riggs and Sara Shelby-Martin) are subtle and lovely, and the track features Lee's frequent accompanist, Buddy Shanahan.
The album's only original song is an inspirational work called "You Go On" by Adam Wright, which sounds like it belongs as the 11 o'clock number in a new musical. The lead vocals are handled by Sara Shelby-Martin, Brian Hathaway, Darius-Anthony Robinson, Arianna Movassagh, Stan Graner, Erica Peterman and Nicolette Doake, while more than 60 others handle additional vocals and the back-up chorus. This one's not necessarily pegged to Christmastime, but with the idea of picking yourself up, dusting off and moving forward, it certainly fits in. It's a fitting final track.
The CD's most traditional number features Gary Floyd, doing a heartfelt "O Holy Night" with pianist Terry Dobson leading the musicians. And there are a couple of pleasant female vocal collaborations, on "Hey Santa" (Stephanie Young Brehm, Jennifer Green, Cara Statham Serber) and "Hard Candy Christmas," from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (Beth Albright, Megan Kelly Bates, Kayla Carlyle, Catherine Carpenter-Cox and Jody Rudman).
The album's least successful track is its opener, in which that tiny gal with the big voice, Kimberly Whalen, sings Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time is Here" from A Charlie Brown Christmas. No one can knock Whalen's skill with a ballad, but this is a soft, melancholy tune, and Whalen's interpretation is too polished and bold. It's similar to the same problem that occurs when a vocalist with a too-perfect voice, such as Barbra Streisand, takes on Sondheim's plaintive "Send in the Clowns." It doesn't quite work.
Among the album's sure-to-be crowd-pleasers are a jazzy medley of "Jingle Bell Rock" and "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" (arranged by Mark Mullino and featuring vocalists B.J. Cleveland, Donald Fowler, Stephanie Riggs, Sara Shelby-Martin and Amy Stevenson); Natalie King doing a get-down version of the Motown favorite "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)" from 1963 (first performed by Darlene Love); and Marisa Diotalevi and Doug Miller, who do a terrific job with Frank Loesser's playful "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Those two voices sound like they stepped out of the 1940s.
Two of Holidazzle's standout tracks are sung by actresses who are directors' go-to gals when casting country legend Patsy Cline. First, Julie Johnson and her band do a fantastic, up-tempo blues version of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," in which Johnson adds some hilarious ad-libs. She offhandedly remarks "that's creepy" after they lyric "He sees you when you're sleeping/he knows when you're awake."
The other is from Jenny Thurman, who performs as two of her idols, Patsy Cline and Judy Garland. David Coffee sets up the scenario as an announcer at an old-time radio show, and Judy and Patsy show up to sing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" together. It's amazing enough that Thurman interchanges characters in the song, but the wow factor comes in when the sound wizards overlap them.
Harris might be the star of the CD, though. If his "Carol of the Bells" is amazing, then his arrangement on "White Christmas" one-ups that. In this rendition, Todd Hart, Bob Hess, Jim Johnson, Markus Lloyd, Paul Taylor and Paul J. Williams perform it in the style of '60s male groups, or rather Forever Plaid, a show in which all of these actors have performed. It's beautifully harmonized and comes with peppy background doo-wopping.
That track is followed by what is hands down the albums' finest moment, as Liz Mikel and Cedric Neal more than do justice to "Mary, Did You Know?" which was written by the other Mark Lowry. It's a marvelous song, and the soft guitar and the singers' emotional voices flawlessly intertwine. Absolutely breathtaking.
Even for folks who don't love most Christmas music, Holidazzle lives up to the second half of the album's title. It truly dazzles.
Event: Celebrate the release of this album, which is available at area theaters and through the Web site, at a release party, 6:30-8:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 9, at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd., Dallas (75219).
About the project: The Five Friends Foundation formed in late 2008 (actually, by eight individuals: Patty Breckenridge, Marisa Diotalevi, Carrie Hein, Bob Hess, Doug Miller, Jody Rudman and Andrea and Keith Redmon) with a mission for the theater community to come together for charity. This year, the beneficiary of the hard work of more than 70 local actors, singers, several music directors and musicians is the organization Jonathan's Place, which provides shelter for abused, abandoned and neglected children.
To hear an interview with producers Carrie Hein and Doug Miller on This Week in the Arts, go here.
TheaterJones asked participants for their thoughts about working on the project, and here are some of the responses.
►From Doug Miller, Producer of Holidazzle 2009 and board member of Five Friends Foundation/DFW Actors Give Back:
"For years I have wondered how the DFW Acting Community could share our talents beyond the stage. I thought, 'NYC actors do this through Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, so why can't we do something?'
"Who knew that when we took on this CD venture that it would be such a huge undertaking? Still, there are no regrets. Finding the talent and perfect charity was the easy part. Finding the money, getting our not-for-profit status, working out schedules, getting the rights to all of the songs and promoting and selling the CD, those were hard parts.Still, it has all been worth it.
"The solos and small group numbers on the CD are absolutely amazing. Then we had the group number rehearsal that involved members from the DFW live theatre community. Once I heard these 100 voices singing together and saw so many new faces along with some folks who have known one another for 40 years, then did the chills occur and my eyes fill with tears. It was then that I realized what a huge, unprecedented project this is.
"I feel so honored to be a part of such an incredibly talented and giving community. Just to know that the kids at Jonathan's Place will benefit from artists in our Metroplex is amazing. The blood, sweat, tears, time and begging has been worth it."
►From actor/singer Stan Graner:
"We can all feel a little disenfranchised from the theater community from time to time. So it personally was a very big deal to me to be asked to be a part of this project. It felt like a validation, and an honor. It felt like I was appreciated, and that I was accepted by this theater community that I love. And it's important to give where we can give, and Five Friends created this opportunity for us all to do just that, to "up" our good karma a little bit! So, thanks guys!"
►From Bob Hess, actor, singer and member of the Five Friends Foundation:
"I am sure this repeats what may have been said already, but it has been absolutely overwhelming to me how graciously and enthusiastically our theatre community has embraced this project. When the word went out that we were trying to make this happen this year, people started getting in touch with us immediately. A number of members of our community (such as Lon Barrera, Connie Coit, Lauren Embry, Stan Graner, Sue Loncar, Molly Moroney, Nancy Rubin, Lucia Welch, Carolyn Wickwire and Jane Willingham) actually stepped up to help provide the critical start-up funds (well over $10,000) to produce this year's CD, assuring an even greater contribution to Jonathan's Place."
►From actress and singer Stephanie Riggs:
"I think this has been a great unifying experience for the DFW theater community. We have all gotten to come together for a great cause and share our talents. I had the honor of singing on four tracks on the CD, and it was so much fun to reconnect with old friends and make new ones. Now we just need the DFW community to do their part by purchasing the CD so we can raise lots of money for an amazing cause! I also think it is great that Five Friends chose a charity that doesn't receive a great deal of attention. Perhaps shining a light on that cause will help with good karma to in turn raise attention to the great local theatre that happens across the Metroplex."
►From actor Cedric Neal:
"For me, being asked to participate on this project was the best Christmas gift ever. In a business that's so competitive, political and often clouded with confusion, it's beautiful to see so many people in our community come together for such a project. It's the truest representation of community!"