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Review: ‘Holiday Follies’ at Signature Theatre

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It’s that time of year again. Signature Theatre opened their annual Holiday Follies this week. The seasonal cabaret is packed with a set of over twenty songs including Christmas classics, tunes from popular holiday movies, and contemporary originals. Matthew Gardiner conceived and directed this fun, feel-good show that delivers Yuletide cheer with gusto. Drinks were flowing, feet were tapping, and every face carried a smile as the performers filled the room with the warmth, joy, and magic that music can bring.

Right upon walking into the ARK Theatre at Signature, the space has an intimate feel. There are cocktail tables arranged closely to the small stage, which is set with festive décor. A wreath and Christmas tree adorned with lights help to illuminate the room.  And if you look closely, more personal touches can be seen: a menorah on the piano, Rudolf antlers on the kick-drum, and a lonely ukulele longing to be played.

Howard Breitbart is the man-of-many-hats for the production. On piano, he heads a three-piece band, with Chris DeChiara on drums and Eric Seay on Bass, each looking very dapper in their black and white suits. Breitbart also handled the arrangements and served as Musical Director for the show.

A trio of performers make up the cast: Katie Mariko Murray, Ines Nassara, and David Rowen. Each vocalist brings their own unique style to their songs: Murray has a classic ingenue sound, Nassara carries a jazz vibe with Broadway diva sprinkled in, and Rowen has more of a pop quality to his voice. But despite their individuality, the singers blend like a dream and opened together with an Elton John hit–and I’m not sure they could have chosen a more perfect song to start the show. Just look at the lyrics.

Welcome to my Christmas song
I’d like to thank you for the year
So I’m sending you this Christmas card
To say it’s nice to have you here
I’d like to sing about all the things
Your eyes and mind can see
So hop aboard the turntable
Oh step into Christmas with me

Several old standards follow. Rowen sings a more upbeat version of “The Christmas Waltz,” and Murray’s “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” by Irving Berlin, carries all the comforting nostalgia of a mug of hot cocoa on a cold day.

Of course, no holiday show is complete without someone singing “White Christmas,” another Berlin song made famous with the king crooner himself, Bing Crosby. But Rowen and Nassara sang an arrangement closer to the fun Drifters version that appears in Home Alone, starting off the section of the show with music from movies that fit the holiday theme.

“You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” was my personal favorite for the evening. Nassara sang this song with a hipster twist, complete with bass player, Seay, plucking away in the background. The juxtaposition of Nassara’s playful and gorgeously rich voice singing Suess’ disgusting lyrics–think seasick crocodiles, unwashed socks, and moldy, purple spots–only added to the humor of the ridiculously adorable song.

Another favorite of mine was “Merry Christmas Darling” by the Carpenters. Murray’s voice had been reminding me of someone and it wasn’t until this number that I could put my finger on it: the beloved Karen Carpenter who originated the song. Murray possesses a similar soft clarity and smooth tone that seemed to effortlessly float and swirl through the air and up to the rafters.

And at one point, Murray gave the band a break and picked up the ukulele. She strummed and sang “Christmas Don’t Be Late”, but with more heart and hope than the ironic Chipmunks’ original recording.

But nothing takes me back to the winters of my youth like the music from A Charlie Brown’s Christmas. Rowan sang “Christmas Time is Here” with a cool and easy tone that felt like home. And later in the set, the band played “Skating,” a beautiful instrumental in the opening of the cartoon classic-if you can’t recall it, google it now. Breitbart’s fingering is delicate and quick, fulfilling the representation of standing in the falling snow and listening to the swooshing of skates.

One stellar number after another was delivered, and the singers swapped turns in the spotlight, occasionally singing backup harmonies. Most of the songs were familiar, though there were some that were new to me, like Carole King’s “Chanukah Prayer,” and “Snowfall” by Barbara Streisand.  But knowing the music is not a requirement to enjoying the production. The band was hot and Murray, Nassara, and Rowen amped the energy and excitement throughout the show.

Signature’s Holiday Follies was the perfect respite from the cold weather and captures the love and harmony that this time of year enhances. The human spirit’s capacity for love and compassion is boundless and this show is a reminder of how full a heart can feel even in the hardest of times.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Holiday Follies plays through December 16, 2017 at Signature Theatre—4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, Virginia. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online.

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