by Ryan Leeds
I’m prefacing this review by stating that my barometer of holiday cheer is quite high this year. I’ve strung Christmas lights in my work cubicle and my playlist has been tuned to seasonal favorites. I’ve even managed to maintain a spirit of goodwill by resisting the urge to trample tourists on the crowded, decked out streets. So it is with some trepidation to report that the New York Pops Holiday Concert on Friday Dec. 18 and Saturday Dec 19 was, overall, as fizzy as flat champagne.
Broadway stars Stephanie J. Block and Brian d’Arcy James headlined the two-hour affair, along with Judith Clurman’s Essential Voices USA (who sang with usual precision). Block opened the evening with James Kessler’s arrangement of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” a selection that was repeated from last year’s concert (albeit a different arrangement). She was later joined by James in a pleasant arrangement of “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” James, who currently headlines the hit musical, Something Rotten!, took a break from his usual stint in the Broadway show to join the Pops. The usually charming actor delivered two holiday favorites, “The Christmas Song” and “Jingle Bells” with sufficiency, but without much elan.
Essential Voices USA reversed the ennui of the evening with a lovely rendition of the beloved Vince Guaraldi classic, “Christmas Time Is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas. Then, turning to a more reverent theme, they performed the stunningly beautiful carol, “Angels We Have Heard on High” by well-known arranger David Chase. The latter can be heard on the choir’s gorgeous album, “Holiday Harmonies: Songs of Christmas.”
The Pops continued to add verve to the line-up with a fun mash-up of “Little Drummer Boy” and Ravel’s “Balero” in the orchestra only “Little Bolero Boy.” Act I ended with a toe-tapping “Holiday Hits Medley” with Block, James, and Essential Voices USA.
Aside from a poignant, autobiographical selection entitled “Michigan Christmas” written and performed by Saginaw native James, there was little fanfare in Act II. Re-hashed songs including “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (haven’t we heard enough versions of this song, which basically suggests date rape?). Even “O Holy Night” failed to induce any goosebumps by Block. Last year, Kelli O’Hara’s performance of it had audiences leaping to their feet. Perhaps Block was under the weather as her vocal capabilities are typically solid and sensational. With the Pops, however, she didn’t seem to deliver the goods.
It didn’t help that the sound was usually imbalanced either. Most of the time, the orchestra overpowered the vocalists, making it nearly impossible to comprehend lyrics. At first, I thought it was just my ears. But at intermission, my guest mentioned it as did the two strangers seated in front of us. Perhaps at a school Christmas pageant this would be acceptable, but not at the one of the world’s most respected concert halls. The Pops rightfully prides itself on engaging programming, and usually, they succeed. This concert, however, was mostly a repeat of last year’s selections and while there is no need to re-invent the wheel, there’s also no reason to replicate what has already been done.
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.