A Jazzy Christmas
December 10, 2011
The Rogue in Plowshares Theatre, Reviews, holiday'11, musicals

‘Tis the season for ubiquitous Christmas music, the beastly quantity and dubious quality of which is enough to wear on even the most spirited holiday shopper (and driver, and diner, and dental patient, and person on hold). Fortunately, Plowshares Theatre understands that the best cure for the unfortunate-Christmas-recordings blues is to do the tunes right. As a follow-up to its spring production, Jazz: Birth of the Cool, the company returns to Detroit’s Virgil H. Carr Cultural Center to celebrate A Jazzy Christmas with inviting warmth and seasonal style.

The large second-floor space is here configured with rows of chairs facing a temporary stage, from which the performers frequently step down and sing almost within reach of the front row. It’s an intimate, casual atmosphere that both evades a strictly concert feel and lends flexibility to performer/choreographer Brent Davin Vance’s staging of about three dozen numbers presented in two acts. LED lighting effects set the ladies’ luxe formal wear to sparkling and also wash over the blank backdrop with rich primary colors, supplemented by huge snowflake lights that keep the surroundings dynamic without being overly busy. The sound design has a similarly tech-infused feel, providing personal amplification that puts each of the five singers on even footing with the five musicians arraying the rear of the stage. Although the impressive accoutrements and close feel suggest counterintuitive purposes, the overall effect is coherent enough: a glimmering, jubilant, but highly personal experience.

In a well-curated collection of tunes from genres ranging from classic hymn to pop, the five singers emerge from behind the stage to sing en masse, in small groups, as couples, and alone. Chelly K turns on the subtle comedy and cheeky appeal in a kitschy materialist plea, in a welcome counterpoint to Audrey Northington’s irrepressible effusiveness that justifies her “Scat Diva” nickname. Armond Jackson busts out a charming and practiced celebrity impression, and Augustus Williamson works the crowd, simultaneously directing backup vocals and singing lead for one fun doo-wop adaptation. The largest departures from the genre fall to Vance, whose solos range from a thoughtful interpretation of “The Little Drummer Boy” to the pulsing pop tempo of a more recently minted standard.

Musically, the production shines thanks to A Jazzy Christmas Band’s infectious efforts, led by music director Bill Meyer on keyboard. Between Meyer’s delightful shifts through medleys, the cool drums of Tajuan Hawkins, the expressive horns of David Greene (trumpet) and Alex Colista (saxophone), and the incredulously limber feats of Ibrahim Jones on upright bass, the impressively dexterous orchestrations are exquisite to hear. Vocals and lyrics prove to be interpreted a little more loosely; while it’s clear some of the off-melody variation is rooted in exceptional command of a given song, other alterations (and, occasionally, repeated single verses) may stem from insufficient comfort with the number in question. Regardless, these accomplished vocalists infuse any imperfection with professional finesse and fluidity, engendering a personal connection with the audience that diminishes any fleeting musical instability.

This Jazzy Christmas is armed to remind its audience of the delights of Christmas music and the wonderful camaraderie it can bring in the right surroundings. Enveloping the viewer in its celebratory mood, with great sounds and expressively friendly performances, this musically adept yet engagingly informal production is a shot in the arm that may be sufficient to combat even the worst holiday lethargy.

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