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The New York Pops: It's Christmas Time in the City

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Brian d'Arcy James, Steven Reineke, and Stephanie J. Block
Photo by Richard Termine

Yes, the holidays should be big, bold, colorful, and exciting, but you don't want to lose the intimacy and the quiet meaning of it all within the rush. That balance might be one of my favorite things about the annual New York Pops holiday concerts at Carnegie Hall. Yes, you're immersed in the grand professionalism (and even more heavenly sounds) of one of the country's great orchestras, under the masterful, playful baton of conductor Steven Reineke. But as this year's installment, "It's Christmas Time in the City," which played on Friday and Saturday, proved, the season can be every bit as good quiet as it can loud—and there's plenty of both to go around.

With the help of the Essential Voices USA choir (under the direction of Judith Clurman), Reineke and the Pops were able to make a big impact all on their own with their spins on some familiar tunes. The cleverest and most unexpected was "Little Bolero Boy," Katherine K. Davis's twist on the somber "Little Drummer Boy" mated with—you guessed it—the underlying excitement of an arrangement akin to Ravel's BolĂ©ro. They paid tribute to "A Charlie Brown Christmas," now 50 years old, with a haunting, wintry rendition of Vince Guaraldi and Lee Mendelson's "Christmas Time Is Here," and an up-tempo traipse through a revamped "Angels We Have Heard on High" (arranged by David Chase). John Williams, once again hot because of his Star Wars: The Force Awakens soundtrack, was represented, too, with the surprisingly majestic "Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas" from, of all things, Home Alone 2. And one of the Pops's signature bits, a hard-driving, electric-backed version of "Jingle Bell Rock" was just as wry and winning as ever.

The guests artists this year were musical theatre stalwarts Brian d'Arcy James (taking a break from starring in Something Rotten!) and Stephanie J. Block, and they proved an apt and cozily contrasting pair for leading our sleigh ride through classics both new and old. One of James's shining moments was a song he wrote himself about his home state, titled "Michigan Christmas," which pointed up the key differences between the hustle-bustle of big-city life and the simpler pleasures of the Midwest; a smile infused every word and lyric, easily conveying just how much his childhood home still means to him. And Block gave a heartfelt rendering of Wesley Whatley and Bill Schermerhorn's "Yes, Virginia," a musical adaptation of the favorite child's Christmas letter, made even more poignant by her pre-song speech about this being the first holiday she and her husband, actor Sebastian Arcelus, are parents themselves.

Block was the most natural and likable I've ever seen her when tackling new standards like "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," "Winter Wonderland," and "I'll Be Home for Christmas," her sometimes too-broad Broadway brashness generally well managed. James brought a touching sincerity to "The Christmas Song" and "Silver Bells," too, and both ended the first half of the program on a wave of excitement with Reineke's own "Holiday Hits Medley," which found him bopping out to "Feliz Navidad" and Block going after Mariah Carey (quite convincingly) with "All I Want for Christmas Is You." James and Block joined forces for contributions from Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn in "Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow and Frank Loesser with "Baby, It's Cold Outside," arranged by Fred Barton as an atypically evenly matched battle of sexual wits.

The evening came to its conclusion first with Block singing, pointedly and powerfully, what she claimed was her favorite carol, "O Holy Night," backed by the choir and its loudest and most fervent, and then with the charming traditional finale for these Pops celebrations: a Christmas sing-along, where you get to join your voice with the pros to salute the season in style. There's nothing quite like hearing a few thousand people unite in the likes of "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," "Silent Night," or "Joy to the World," but Reineke and the Pops do everything they can to ensure that the rest of the concert is the next best thing. They had no trouble this year, and James and Block were only further garland on the tree. Whatever your view of the holidays, it was represented in high style and even higher spirits that are already making Christmas 2016 look sadly far away.

Carnegie Hall Presents
The New York Pops
It's Christmas Time in the City
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