Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas for the Jews

Quick, what do "Winter Wonderland," "White Christmas," "The Christmas Song," "Sleigh Ride," "Let It Snow!" "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," "Silver Bells," "Jingle Bell Rock," and "I'll Be Home for Christmas" all have in common?

Answer: they were all written by Jews. In fact, many of the most popular Christmas songs of the twentieth century had either a Jewish lyricist or composer (or both). Even that hilarious song about that Grinch who stole Christmas was written by a Jew.

This is, of course, partly because much of the "American songbook" was written by Jews. But there's something simultaneously funny and poignant about this particular piece of cultural irony. Indeed, so much show-biz Christmas culture is essentially a Jewish tradition that I've sometimes thought to myself, "You know, I bet there's a hilarious Christmas show kicking around in all of this somewhere!"

And to be honest, at first I thought the New Rep's "Darling Divas Deck the Holidays" might have been inspired by much the same observation, as the show seemed to be straining at times to yoke the Hanukkah and Christmas traditions together. (And why not? The New Rep's audience is largely Jewish.) But at other times, to be frank, this sweet but silly revue just left me scratching my head; underwritten and under-developed, and swinging from Barbra Streisand's Christmas album to Auschwitz and back, it sometimes seemed to have been thrown together quicker than a fruitcake, with results that couldn't be nuttier.

Oh, well! Somehow you don't want to hold the show's slapdash quality against its performers (Aimee Doherty, Kami Rushell Smith, Michele A. DeLuca and Bobbie Steinbach, at left) who are all appealing, if in different ways, and who all get a chance to shine in a number or two that's been tailored for them. Okay, the numbers don't fit together, but they often work individually.  Lighten up, it's Christmas.

Aimee Doherty is probably the standout of the quartet when it comes to straight cabaret - she just gets lovelier and more confident every year, and her voice of course is stunning.  But DeLuca, with her broad, bright laugh and hearty attack, is pretty much hot on her heels - and you get the feeling if there were more dancing in this show, she might actually sprint ahead.  Smith has a smaller, if even sweeter, presence and voice - but if she'd been more amplified you sensed she could have worked wonders with her numbers.  (The performers seemed to be wearing mikes, but they didn't seem to be turned on - which was probably a mistake, for two reasons: most of these songs aren't so subtle that amplification harms them, and the Mosesian Theatre is a barn that acoustically is flatter than a latke.)

Steinbach is more a comedienne than a singer (although she romped saucily through "Santa Baby") but in her Borscht-belt comic routines she seemed freer and happier than I've seen her in a long, looong time, and her pleasure in this timeless schtick was infectious.  Her sing-along to "The Eight Days of Hanukkah," sung to the tune of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," was a show-stopper, as was her bawdy impersonation of "Hurricane Cohen," the grizzled stripper (sorry, "exotic dancer") who'd served as dresser for years to "Miss Steinbach."  I hope I don't have to wait till next Christmas to see more of "Hurricane."

Alas, there were a few moments in this show I'm not so eager to see again.  The readings from Auschwitz, though delivered with appropriate gravity, threw the evening for a loop - I mean, how do you get back from that to "Santa Baby"?  (Suddenly Striking 12 seemed almost coherent!)  And my initial sense of a possible theme to the evening (the Jewish songs from the Christmas specials of the 50's and 60's) was soon scrambled with more readings from "The Gift of the Magi" and "'Twas the Night Before Christmas."  By the end of the show, I really wasn't sure what to make of it at all.  So what can I say?  It's sweet.  It's kind of weird.  Merry Christmas.

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