‘Home for the Holidays’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Plenty of empty seats were available on the subway on Black Friday evening, a situation mirrored in the orchestra of the August Wilson Theatre, where Home for the Holidays, a revue of seasonal music recently opened.
Perhaps people were staying home for the holiday because they were recovering from Thanksgiving food and political arguments; perhaps it was because of shopping fatigue; or perhaps it was simply unfavorable word of mouth about this show, which seems better suited to a megachurch than a Broadway stage.
Home for the Holidays, which believes in putting the Christ back in Christmas, and banishes all other celebrations from its definition of “holidays,” is a straightforward revue. Most of the songs are as familiar as what you’re hearing in every mall these days, like “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” “Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful,” and so on. There are several somewhat less well-known numbers, and one original, by the husband and wife team of Peter Hollens and Evynne Hollens, “YouTube sensations,” which Mr. Hollens sings. Many, of course, will leave feeling their favorite songs are still under the tree.
The Hollenses also serve as fine backups to the three stars, each a winner of a different TV singing competition. The bespectacled Josh Kaufman, a slight, bearded hipster with a jazzy R&B sound, was the winner of the sixth season of “The Voice.” Candice Glover captured the crown on the twelfth season of “American Idol” with her R&B/soul/gospel voice. Bianca Ryan, a blonde belter in the Mariah Carey vein, was the first winner on “America’s Got Talent,” a prize she captured at age 11.
Although the singers are all gifted with powerful voices and agreeable stage presences, none displays the kind of unique charisma that sets true stars apart from so many others of their type. Jonathan Tessero, credited for “creative and musical direction,” does them no favors with arrangements that turn the sweetest of holy songs into overly loud, overly orchestrated, can-you-top-this, power ballads.
Even songs that begin softly morph into ear-blasting numbers designed to display musical lung power. Eventually, the lack of variety makes one want to shout, “We get it! You can sing! So take it down a notch and do something simple, a capella even, without trying to please the Simon Cowell in us!”
To break up the monotony of one big song following another (more than 25, in fact), several musicians get to do too-brief solos. Moreover, two additional performers occasionally appear, neither of them necessary. One is the “host,” Kaitlyn Bristowe, who made her name on TV’s “Bachelorette.” She barely sings, offers an innocuous comment here and there, and is totally dispensable.
Ditto the surprising appearance of one of my favorite actors, 84-year-old Danny Aiello, looking, sounding, and acting much younger. He’s present merely to recount a couple of schmaltzy stories about his childhood Christmases. Awww. He gets to sing a little, showing a rich, old-time crooner’s voice that contrasts oddly with his costars’ au courant megaphones. For all his still-vibrant charm, which practically steals the show, he’s poorly integrated into the otherwise non-narrative proceedings.
No one is credited with the platform set, whose cheesy Christmas tree cutouts look like discards from a 1950s department store window. Jason Kantrowitz lights the show nicely, though, with a conventional palette of colorful concert-type effects. “Wardrobe stylist” James Brown III provides the women with glittery, nightclub-style evening gowns, most of them floor-length and sequin-studded, while the men remain casually attired before shifting to formal wear late in the 80-minute proceedings.
Remember those old Andy Williams, Perry Como, and Bing Crosby-style Christmas specials? When songs were sung, not to sound like they were competing but to express the heartwarming beauty of melodies and lyrics, perhaps within some contextual framework? Maybe I’m just an old sentimentalist but I suggest they helped make it nice to be home for the holidays.
Even without Andy, Perry, and Bing, Home for the Holidays is nothing to leave home for.
Home for the Holidays
August Wilson Theatre
245 W. 52nd St., NYC
Through December 30
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. A voting member of the Drama Desk, he has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).