Christmas Magic in the Big Apple continues Richard Holbrook’s many years of presenting Christmas season shows. What sets his productions apart from many other performers is his view that this time of year is a time for celebrating family and friends. It is not simply a time of religious holidays but more of an all-encompassing recognition of the joyous spirit that moves people to engage with one another in a celebration of life.
His shows are a creative mix of holiday songs with a universal theme. Holbrook commented, “Not everyone celebrates Christmas, and I don’t want people coming to my show being made to feel uncomfortable.” His playlists over the years have exemplified that view, with the current show being the latest in the series.
His opening number sets the stage nicely with a medley of “I Happen To Like New York” (Cole Porter with arrangement by Marvin Hamlisch) and “Silver Bells” (Jay Livingston and Ray Evans.) He explains to the audience his reasoning behind the show and the song selection. He describes this time of year in New York as “very happy and joyful and at the same time, frustrating and irritable.”
The next set brings out that theme with “The Sound of Christmas” (Larry Grossman and Buz Kohan), followed by a medley, “Consider Yourself” (Lionel Bart), and “Thank You Very Much” (Leslie Bricusse), the last one being dedicated to a full house in attendance at his show.
Richard Holbrook is a consummate “good guy” in the entertainment world. He has an easy, infectious smile and is genuinely dedicated to and appreciative of his audiences. And given the health challenges he faced not so many years ago, he is a testament to the spirit of giving all you have to every moment. As was his last one in 2019, before the pandemic shutdown, this holiday show is dedicated to The Cancer Support Community, with all the proceeds of that show and this one going to the charity.
His following selection was a heartfelt and beautifully sung rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s “What More Do I Need?” Sondheim’s songs are not the easiest to sing, with their lyrics’ chord structures, and emotional weight. Nevertheless, Holbrook rose to the occasion with this number, followed quickly by “It’s Always Christmas In New York” (Ronny Whyte and Roger Schore) as if to underscore the theme for the evening.
I have issues with the next medley of “Use Your Imagination” (Cole Porter) and “Pure Imagination” (Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley). The idea for the medley is good, but I don’t think it works well. The issue may be that the tempo of “Pure Imagination” was too upbeat for a song about creative contemplation.
“Confessions of a New Yorker (Hate-Love New York),” (Portia Nelson) is an excellent set-up for the very powerful, beautifully sung Charles Aznavour’s “Quiet Love.” Holbrook’s interpretation of this number shows a depth of feeling not expressed in any of the other songs and one that viscerally engages the listener, with the audience being taken into the depth of the emotions expressed.
Holbrook quickly brings it back to a lighter place with his medley of “I Like Life/I’ll Begin Again” (Leslie Bricusse) from the film Scrooge. Unfortunately, the following number, “Our Town” (Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn), was less successful. The vocal range seemed to be a stretch for him, with the high notes seeming to be forced. However, the transition to a Cahn medley of holiday standards made any quibbles about the previous song less important.
This holiday medley of Sammy Cahn lyrics with “Pocketful of Miracles” (Jimmy Van Heusen), “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” (Jule Styne), “A Christmas-y Day” (Burton Lane), “The Christmas Waltz” (Jule Styne), and “The Secret of Christmas” (Jimmy Van Heusen) is a perfect set of specifically Christmas holiday songs, and effortlessly leads into two light-hearted pieces for children of all ages, “Too Fat For The Chimney” (Irving Gordon) and “Christmas Was Made For Children” a little known Mel Tormé number.
And, once again, from the upbeat to the introspective, Holbrook skillfully moves to a Sondheim medley of “No One Is Alone” and “Not While I’m Around.”
The next choice, “The Little Drummer Boy,” does not work in this mix of songs. It seems jarringly out of place, especially when sandwiched between the Sondheim medley and the Holiday Jazz Medley that ends the show. And although the Jazz Medley selections are good, with “Jingle Bells” (James Lord Pierpont), “Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town” (John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie), “Winter Weather” (Ted Shapiro), and “Winter Wonderland” (Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith) the execution is uneven, of which I do not have serious concerns given the overall quality of the show.
Richard Holbrook’s encore medley of “Crazy World” (Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse) and “Beautiful Things” (Leslie Bricusse) is the coda for a wonderful, entertaining evening of song.
This review would not be complete without calling out the superb work of The Tom Nelson Trio. The pianist and musical director Tom Nelson has worked with Richard Holbrook since 2001. It is a collaboration that Holbrook considers to be family. “Tom has been a gift to me. His arrangements and accompaniment have always been first-rate.” In addition to Nelson on the piano is Tom Kirchmer on bass and John Redsecker on drums.
Richard Holbrook: Christmas Magic in the Big Apple (December 18 & 19, 2022)
Don’t Tell Mama, 343 West 46th Street, in Manhattan
For reservations, call (212) 757-0788 or visit https://www.donttellmamanyc.com
Running time: 80 minutes without an intermission