An admission, before I complain about how Quality Hill Playhouse's Christmas in Song isn't the season-saving treat this year that it has been for much of the decade. The admission: You know the thrush of warm feeling that tickles up and down your neck on those too-rare occasions when something truly moves you? At this year's Christmas in Song, the same one I'm set to bitch about, I felt that four times.
Three of those thrills came from LeShea Wright, an elegant young singer who is trained in gospel, divine at pop and adept at moving audiences by straying gently from the melody when she hits a song's climax. This trick is abused in pop and gospel today, where the singer is always more important than what is being sung, but Wright — and Quality Hill Playhouse — is restrained as a matter of principle. On "The Christmas Song" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas," Wright alters only a note or three, going higher at the end, not where you would expect but where you suddenly realize singers should have gone up all along. Her liberties surprise the ear, but they fit so right that the songs gain power beyond that of brute familiarity. (Like "White Christmas," these are great songs mostly because we've always known they're great songs.) Delivered with Wright's intelligent playfulness, these are still the songs we know, just spiced free of inevitability.
The truly inevitable got me, too. Elaine Fox, of the double-barreled opera-star pipes, flogged the dead warhorse "O Holy Night" back to life, unleashing a tremolo bellow at the end that gushed through the tiny theater like a North Pole wind. The song was nothing new, but Fox's power made up for it.
The problem with this year's Christmas in Song is hardly the traditional material. The trouble is the new songs — a string of vague, tuneless, sleepy, mawkish, unsurprising surprises.
Assembling his umpteenth holiday program, the usually tasteful director, pianist and host J. Kent Barnhart seems to have run out of Christmas tunes. How else to explain the early inclusion of "Believe," the Josh Groban single sung to the sad, laminated-looking kids in the nightmarish Polar Express?
The great Christmas songs are about specifics: chestnuts roasting; round yon virgins; the fact that baby, it's cold outside and you sure do treat me right. "Believe" is about nothing but belief and the narcissistic belief of self-help seminars at that: Believe in what your heart is saying/Hear the melody that's playing, the chorus natters, before rhyming waste with celebrate and then — with a straight, soulless computer-animated face — advising us to give your dreams the wings to fly.
"Believe" is the most melodic of these duds. The Barry Manilow showtune "Because It's Christmas (for the Children)" is so much more garish and flimsy than its title suggests that its awfulness seems an achievement: I haven't found this much to hate in one song since the last time I heard "Piano Man." Somehow, Brandon Sollenberger sold it, and he even seemed more comfortable than he did last year with the wide-eyed naïveté demanded by this material.
Another deadly patch in the second act offered four newish songs in a row, each offering a different perspective on the Nativity story — at last, the thoughts of Jesus' babysitter! But not one offered a chorus worth remembering. Wright saved "Mary, Did You Know?" by having the sense to chuck good taste and for once belt bigger than her song.
In all, a third of the show was so flat that I had to fight nodding off. These dead bulbs notwithstanding, Barnhart strings together enough highlights to Christmas-trim a good-sized building.
As in this fall's excellent Gershwin tribute, our host assigns himself more solo time than in recent years. Alone at his piano, Barnhart zips and pounds through Charles Lindberg's hothouse variations on "Jingle Bells," closing the first act on a high. He also sings a lot this time, barreling through Harry Connick Jr.'s "I Pray on Christmas" like it's some lost boogie-woogie great. His baritone is relatively inexpressive compared with the ringers he hires for these shows, but his phrasing and charm make his numbers among the night's most memorable. (He also gets better material than poor Sollenberger, the only other guy in the show.)
Later in the show, strong numbers tinged with blues and gospel woke me up. Wright flat-out killed on the slow-building spiritual "Mary Had a Baby." Kirby Shaw's "Jamaican Noel" was cutesy, but Wright and the ensemble made it work through grit. Finally, "Go Tell It on the Mountain" served as joyous climactic fireworks, a wrap-up so potent, I found myself thinking, briefly, that I might sneak back sometime closer to Christmas, as I've done in previous years.
Then, walking out, I overheard someone singing a snatch of "Believe." And I remembered that two of those dire new tunes had included lyrics about spreading wings and learning to fly, which apparently is no longer a euphemism for sex with Rod Stewart. With that, my Christmas buzz had its wings clipped.
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