True, there's the occasional banal, Hallmark-ish moment, and the title tune simply skims along the surface of the season like a toboggan heading downhill. But the vast majority of the songs cover the familiar touchstones of the holiday season with wit and style.
All of the lyrics were penned by Laurence Holzman and Felicia Needleman, who also conceived the show. (As Michael Feinstein says in his new holiday act, 80 percent of all Christmas songs were written by Jews. That trend obviously continues). Seven composers contributed the melodies, and five talented, young performers bring the material to life.
It's extremely hard for a songwriter to come up with a fresh take on Christmas. In order to be universal, one needs to choose from a very small amount of iconic words and themes; once you get past mistletoe, eggnog, reindeer, Santa and his elves, that's pretty much it. Hanukah is even tougher: if you've mentioned the drop of oil, the dreidel, and Judah Maccabee, you've covered just about everything except, maybe, Chinese Food. So what are a couple of lyricists to do? Well, in addition to finding original ways to deal with familiar subjects, Holzman and Needleman have brought on board the savvy director-choreographer Annette Jolles, who has found ways to gift wrap these songs so that, even if the sentiments are not so new, the packaging sure makes them sparkle.
Most of the comedic numbers are gems. The one about a half-Jewish, half-Catholic fellow named "Angelo Rosenbaum," who is trying to find a wife may telegraph where it's going, but it gets there with considerable charm. "Husbands' Blues," sung by two men who have no idea what to buy their wives, is amusingly staged like a Blues Brothers number. There's the sly but ultimately sweet "Veronica" about a young Jewish boy who sings, "I want Veronica for Hanukah!" And there are plenty of other offbeat, funny numbers, such as "Calypso Christmas,", "Judah Maccabee,", and "Holiday Lament: The Fruitcake Song."
Several of the more serious songs are relentlessly generic; but the show's best number of all is quite serious, and it gives the show a welcome sense of gravitas. Titled "Candles in the Window," it's about an older man remembering his youth in Berlin in the 1930s and what happened to himself and his family. It's a powerfully moving song, especially as performed with admirable restraint by Jonathan Rayson.
The show's one other male performer, Nick Verina, has many standout moments, none better than when he plays a tap-dancing dreidel in "Time for a Spin." The women in the cast, Bridget Beirne, Kerri Jill Garbis and Erin Maguire, all have good voices. Garbis is the most comically animated of the three, while Beirne is the best singer. Maguire sings well, too; but, for some reason, this excessively thin young woman has been given a number about gorging on food. It's a huge directorial error, to say the least; but in the spirit of the holiday, all is forgiven.
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