On the other end of the spectrum was his delirious rendition of Steve Allen’s bouncy “This Could Be The Start Of Something Big,” for which he wrote special holiday lyrics. That was part of the lively opening number, a medley that also included Irving Berlin’s classic “Happy Holidays.”
Dapper in a black suit, white shirt, black vest and a black bowtie, the mature yet magnetically boyish Holbrook performed for a fast-paced 70 minutes. It was a refreshingly eclectic holiday cabaret show that included more than two dozen songs.
This noted baritone vocalist is possessed of flawless diction, superior phrasing and a smoothly powerful delivery. Contributing to the great display of showmanship was his limber physicality, animated presence and effortlessly breezy patter. His persona was an engaging cross between sunniness and seriousness.
“They’re like one-act plays,” said Elaine Stritch of Stephen Sondheim’s songs and Holbrook made “Old Friends” into a gripping drama with his frenetic treatment that directly engaged audience members close to him. At times it was if he was channeling Buddy from Follies.
“I Remember” from Sondheim’s 1966 television musical Evening Primrose was deeply wistful. It was joined with Michele Brourman and Amanda McBroom’s serene “Make Me A Kite.” Holbrook’s introduction of it described his watching the television adaptation of Truman Capote’s sentimental Depression-era story, A Christmas Memory, as a child. Capote concluded it with, “I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying towards heaven.”
“I Never Has Seen Snow,” from the 1954 Broadway musical House Of Flowers, based on Capote’s novel and for which he collaborated on the lyrics with Harold Arlen, was a wonderfully enacted curio.
“He had a great knack for writing holiday songs,” Holbrook said of lyricist Sammy Cahn. He then launched into a medley packed with Cahn songs including “Pocketful Of Miracles” from the 1961 Frank Capra film A Pocketful Of Miracles, “Let It Snow Let It Snow Let It Snow,” “A Christmas-y Day” from the animated musical Heidi’s Song, and a lilting “The Christmas Waltz.”
“Our Town” written by Cahn for the 1955 television musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s monumental Americana play, was performed as a big number that was an ode to nostalgia. Like several of the songs in the show, this wasn’t an actual Christmas one but was so artfully woven into the program that it seemed like it was.
“I love to discover new songs at Christmas time,” Holbrook said before singing Larry Kershner’s “Christmas Day.” This peppy list of Christmas incidents was written last year.
“Silver Bells,” “Sleigh Ride,” “A Marshmallow World,” Steve Allen’s funny “Cool Yule,” and a holiday version of “The Glow Worm” were also performed.
“I love this month, especially in New York. No city celebrates Christmas like New York!” Holbrook then went into a rousing version of Cole Porter’s “I Happen to Like New York,” with special holiday material written by Marvin Hamlisch and Fred Ebb.
Noel Coward’s “Come the Wild Wild Weather” written for his 1961 play, Waiting In the Wings, was the sensitive encore.
The Tom Nelson Trio provided the glorious, jazzy musical accompaniment, with Mr. Nelson on piano and also the musical director. Tom Kirchmer was on bass and Peter Grant was on drums. All three wore formal wear and marvelously conveyed a sense of the sound of the past with their superb musicianship.
Director Richard Barclay coordinated the musical and soloist components into a visually compelling event with his inspired physical staging. Holbrook was seemingly all over the quite small playing area. The striking lighting was composed of blackouts, fades and at times focused on the band. Lighting and sound technician Rocky Noel oversaw the seamless technical features.
Ranging from light to poignant, Richard Holbrook: Always December was a novel and a sterling Christmas time entertainment
Richard Holbrook: Always December (December 18, 2016)
Don’t Tell Mama, 343 West 46th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-757-0788 or visit http://www.donttellmamanyc.com
Running time: 70 minutes with no intermission