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A Swingin’ Birdland Christmas: Klea Blackhurst, Jim Caruso, Billy Stritch

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Jim Caruso, Klea Blackhurst, Billy Stritch
Jim Caruso, Klea Blackhurst, Billy Stritch.  Photo: Kevin Alvey

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors, December, 2017

It always comes back to Jim Caruso, Klea Blackhurst and Billy Stritch to fire up the season with their annual songfest, A Swingin’ Birdland Christmas. Now for the eighth season, for four-days the Christmas spirit rules at Birdland. In a hip, swinging, sentimental way, it's a show that works better than eggnog in getting the cheer sparkling again.

The spirit comes from the television variety shows of the '60's and '70's, when Bing Crosby and kids, the Osmond family and Andy Williams and his brothers delivered their homespun, merry specials with Christmas élan. Pianist/vocalist Billy Stritch, urbane in a scarlet jacket, singer/funnyman Jim Caruso wore plaid and Klea Blackhurst shimmering in a black dress all insist, "It always goes back to the Osmonds." However, it is their own cool spin that jumps and jives through on their hour-plus of madcap camaraderie. When they take the Birdland stage, it's beginning to look at lot like Christmas, just like the ones we used to know, or wish we knew. 

The other influence weaving through this show is the late Kay Thompson, a one-of-a-kind producer/ creator/ songwriter/  performer who mentored entertainers like Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and Lena Horne. After the show's opener, “Christmas Is Starting Now,” the trio continued with Thompson's “It’s the Holiday Season.” Appreciating Thompson's jazzy arrangements, singular harmonies and her undeniable "bazazz," they reach an apex with Thompson's mashup arrangement of "Jingle Bells," a regular in their Christmas shows, electrifying.

As a nod to Christmas shopping, "Discount Boogie," is a vocalese interpretation of Barry Manilow's theme song from American Bandstand. From films, they included a smooth harmonic, "Snow" from White Christmas and "It Happened in Sun Valley" from Sun Valley Serenade, a song about winter but it's Christmasy enough. Crowd-pleasers were Jim Caruso's gyrating, Elvis-style, to "Blue Christmas" and irresistible as Cher singing "O Holy Night." We had a perfect look back at Ethel Merman as Blackhurst belted out a bit of "Silent Night," and brought out her bugle for a snippet of Herb Albert's "The Lonely Bull."

Stritch preceded a lush "The Christmas Song" with an account of how Mel Torme came to write the seasonal classic. When he sang "Manhattan in December," he proved that New York, as many know, is the best place to celebrate the holidays. In a different vein, he delivered some of the season's wackier tunes, "Santa Make Her My Bride" and "Here Comes Susie Snowflake."

Melodies, countermelodies, reverent or whimsical, Caruso, Blackhurst and Stritch are New York performing paragons. Coming together for this holiday treat is now a tradition and so is the encore as it turns to the past with a recording of Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas."

A Swingin’ Birdland Christmas: Klea Blackhurst, Jim Caruso, Billy Stritch
315 W 44th St, NYC
December 22-25, 2017
Musicians: Billy Stritch on piano, Daniel Glass on drums and Steve Doyle on bass.
Running Time: One hour
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors
December, 2017