By John Quinn
Have you ever received a gift that was more than you could have ever wished for? I hope so. I still remember the joy of seeing that Lionel train set under our Christmas tree. An evening of theater occasionally brings a similar joy. I go to a show presuming I’ll have a good time and leave the theater simply dazzled. The dazzling present in question is Plowshares Theatre’s “A Jazzy Christmas,” an elegant musical revue stuffed with more goodies and surprises than any Christmas stocking you’ve seen.
Having reviewed the company’s production of “Jazz: Birth of the Cool” last spring I expected a great night. But I knew I was in for something special as soon as bass-baritone Augustus Williamson launched into “The Christmas Song,” immortalized by Nat King Cole. There are musical chestnuts not roasting on an open fire – they’re in heavy rotation on Top 40 stations all over town. There may be old standards in this revue, but no chestnuts. Williamson’s rendition is fresh, warm and soulful. He was followed by the two sophisticated ladies of the show, Audrey Northington and Chelly K. Northington’s jazzy “White Christmas” just oozes style. It includes stellar instrumental riffs by saxophonist Alex Colista and bassman Ibrahim Jones.
Chelly K’s solo was a surprise – I song I hadn’t heard before. “Five Pounds of Money” is the ambitious wish list of a somewhat spoiled hipster. Ms. K’s rendition is as sassy as you can get. Three solos, three winners; “A Jazzy Christmas” had scored a hat trick before the end of the first act.
But the hits just keep on coming. Armond Jackson brings back the great Louis Armstrong with a medley “Christmas Time in New Orleans,” while Williamson does likewise with “Christmas Night in Harlem.” They’re gentle jazz pieces, seasoned with a dash of swing and a dollop of the blues – tasty treats indeed.
“A Jazzy Christmas” is staged and choreographed by Brent Davin Vance, who performs a totally unexpected but thoroughly enjoyable African-inspired “Little Drummer Boy” backed by a rolling snare rhythm by Tajuan Hawkins on drums. The very next number, “Christmas is Here,” is best known for its performance in the annually aired “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The instrumental break features outstanding trumpeter David Greene, who can make that horn do pretty much anything he wants it to.
If there is a star in this tight ensemble, it’s musical director and keyboardist Bill Meyer. Not only is he featuring the vocalists at their very best and directing a beautifully balanced jazz quartet, he is responsible for the musical arrangements. They’re simply sensational. There are numbers in this show I have never heard sound so good.
I wrote in the review of “Jazz: Birth of the Cool” that “More than just a musical genre, jazz is attitude.” I can expand on that now. More than just a musical genre, jazz is a musical family. In “A Jazzy Christmas” you find swing and the blues, some classic gospel and a little doo-wop. It’s all served up with that savory jazz attitude. I wish that attitude could be wrapped in shiny paper and tied with a bow. It’s all I want for Christmas!
‘A Jazzy Christmas’
Plowshares Theatre Company at Virgil H. Carr Cultural Arts Center, 311 E. Grand River Ave., Detroit, Friday-Sunday through Dec. 31. $32-$38. 313-593-0926. http://www.plowsharestheatre.org