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Theater Review: A Swinging Christmas: The Holiday Music of Tony Bennett

Paul Castree, Tony Perry, Michelle Duffy, and Missy Karle
Paul Castree, Tony Perry, Michelle Duffy, and Missy Karle

Farmers Alley Theatre recently opened the world premiere of A Swinging Christmas: The Holiday Music of Tony Bennett. WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review.

That bright and shining ornament dangling from the highest bough of your Christmas tree, might not be the only swinging item in Kalamazoo during the Holidays.

An evening of sparkling yule-tide entertainment awaits those who attend the Farmers Alley musical tribute to Tony Bennett, the man who set the standard for sophistication and style with his delivery of seasonal favorites.

A foursome of gifted performers serves up more than three dozen Bennett inspired numbers. This two-hour show includes carols, classics, duets and standards from the great American song book. Along the way Paul Castree, Michelle Duffy, Missy Karle and Tony Perry illuminate Bennett’s music and career with song, dance, movement and interplay.

Created by director David Grapes and Todd Olson, the most outstanding element of A Swinging Christmas is the score of innovative arrangements by Vince di Mura. In the spirit of Bennett’s creative interpretation and his love for jazz and swing, di Mura’s arrangements allow performers to coax seemingly new harmonies, tones, colors and meaning out of well-known lyrics and melodies.

Tony Perry, Missy Karle, Michelle Duffy and Paul Castree
Tony Perry, Missy Karle, Michelle Duffy and Paul Castree

The cast responds by bringing fire to rousing gospel numbers such as Sing You Sinners, sassy soul to the blues inspired Every Day I Have the Blues delivered by Perry and Duffy, and celebratory invitation with Perry and Castree’s R&B influenced, Let the Good Times Roll.

Several of the songs are a nod to Bennett’s slower, reflective and more character-based numbers. Tony Perry renders a thoughtful and measured version of Make Someone Happy with his direct, personal, and heartfelt plea to his audience.

One of the show’s most memorable moments is Michelle Duffy’s delivery of Lush Life. Backed by a blue spotlight and Nicholas Mueller on the piano, Duffy successfully inhabits the difficult emotional architecture of Billy Strayhorn’s interior masterpiece. In doing so, she provides revealing glimpses into the bygone elegance and lingering loneliness of the character suggested by its lyrics.

Paul Castree, with Boulevard of Broken Dreams, delivers an appealing drink-in-hand, plaintive account of another lonely soul, captive to the memories of a love gone wrong.

In the first act, Missy Karle’s strong voice lifts all spirits with her uplifting The Best is Yet to Come. It turns out that Karle’s early bold promise is fulfilled in many ways throughout the evening, particularly with Karle’s own engaging rendition of A Child is Born.

Another of the production’s strong suits is the palpable connection between performers and audience in the cabaret style setting. The same can be said about the connection between the cast and Nicholas Mueller’s jazz trio.

In the second act, the cast warmly introduces individual members of the trio for solos during an upbeat version of I’ll Be Home for Christmas. The four actors seem at ease with this, with gentle fond caresses of one another, and with casually tossing lyrics back and forth, as they would with lines of spoken dialogue. These are small touches, but they help create what many audience members might look for in this kind of Holiday show: a cozy, intimate, welcoming atmosphere that offers a cocktail by the Christmas tree or a hot beverage by the fire.

Grapes and Olson’s script includes several sections of narrative or spoken delivery revealing much about Tony Bennett and his life. These interludes shed light on Bennett’s career, style, influences, and introduce songs with an appropriate rhythm or mood. Included here are quotes about Bennett from Frank Sinatra and anecdotes about his collaboration and friendship with musicians such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Lady Gaga.

Toward the end of Act I, the actors vamp and sway to the beat of It Don’t Mean a Thing. They give verbal encouragement to jazz trio member Neal Lensenmayer’s baseline that seems to epitomize and underscore this lively evening in theatre. The full lyric connected to the song’s title is of course It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.

After the invited dress rehearsal I attended last Thursday night, I am pleased to report that this production does indeed have “that swing”. And presumably will keep it as A Swinging Christmas continues at Farmers Alley through December 18th.

Gordon Bolar was WMUK's General Manager from 2011 to 2016. He joined the station in 2006 as Development Director. After retiring as General Manager, Gordon has continued to review theater for WMUK.
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