Friday, November 30, 2018

Christmas in Rockefeller Center (NBC-TV, aired November 28, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago, while Charles was at work, I watched the first musical Christmas special of the year, NBC’s Christmas in Rockefeller Center. (The conjunction I would have expected there was “at,” but they went with “in.”) The fact that it isn’t even December yet and the networks are already trotting out the stars to sing Christmas songs is itself a sign of the time and an indication of how little respite we get from all the holidays, which more or less flow into each other like a raging stream. The show was two hours long — most of the previous Christmas in Rockefeller Center shows have been just one hour — and featured a varied cast of musical acts actually surprisingly sounding quite a bit more similar than one would think given how many genres were represented. The best singing all night was done — no surprise — by Tony Bennett and Diana Krall, who just issued a duet album  and who were represented here by “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song.” Bennett’s voice (at age 91!) is hardly what it was when he made his breakthrough records in the 1950’s and 1960’s, but it’s still a surprisingly musical instrument — and he’s weathered the years better than the much younger Krall, whose voice has lost the flexibility it had on her early Verve recordings of jazz material. (I did resent when the show’s announcers claimed Bennett as a New Yorker; he was born in the same city I was, the one celebrated in the biggest hit he ever had: San Francisco.) What surprised me is how much the swing style of Bennett and Krall carried over to some of the other performers, including Brett Eldredge and Martina McBride, who are usually considered country singers. Part of that may be that the singers who didn’t bring touring bands of their own were backed by the Radio City Music Hall ensemble, an old-style big swing band, but it was amazing to hear Eldredge follow Tony Bennett (he did “Sleigh Ride” right after the Bennett/Krall “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and an original called “Glow” right after the Bennett/Krall “The Christmas Song”) and swing almost as hard.

The show began with John Legend doing a nice but bland song called “What Christmas Means to Me” — Legend’s voice is pretty but dull (if I really wanted to dismiss him I’d call him the Lionel Richie of our time) and it’s hard to believe that he’s achieved the quadrifecta of show-biz awards: Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Grammy. He sounded better later on doing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” on which he sang and played piano, though Judy Garland remains untouchable in this song. Pentatonix, the a cappella group that annoys me with their continued use of drum-machine sounds (at first I thought they were “cheating” on the a cappella concept by using a real drum machine, but later I learned it was just one or more of the Pentatonickers supplying those percussion effects vocally), did “It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas” towards the beginning of the show and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” towards the end, and they were O.K. but I still want them to lose the drum machine even if that means they’d have to change their name to Quadratonix. A young country diva named Kellie Pickler did an O.K. version of “Santa Baby” that compared to Eartha Kitt’s about the way Britney Spears compares to Madonna, but later she did “Joy to the World” with a Black gospel choir behind her and acquitted herself a good deal better. Rocker Rob Thomas did an original of his called “A New York Christmas” which he apparently wrote right after 9/11 as an inspirational anthem to lift up the city’s spirits. Martina McBride did “Winter Wonderland” more or less along the lines of Aretha Franklin’s bizarre early-1960’s version for Columbia, and later covered the Andy Williams “Happy Holidays/It’s the Holiday Season” medley in nice style — she didn’t swing quite as hard as her “country” colleague Brett Eldredge but she still got into the jazz spirit. A young Black would-be R&B diva named Ella Mai (I found myself oddly resenting that she’s copped two-thirds of the name of the great 1940’s singer Ella Mae Morse, a white woman who could legitimately claim to have been the first white female rocker) did the Motown song “This Christmas” and “Silent Night,” and would be good if she’d stop overdoing the “soul” effects — it seems she can’t sing a sustained high note without “worrying” and ornamenting it to death.

The show also featured an excerpt from the New York City Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker as an obvious promo for Disney’s new movie The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (what is this, The Tales of Hoffmann meets The Lord of the Rings?) and a truly atrocious act from America’s Got Talent winner Darci Lynne, who turned out to be a ventriloquist whose dummy, “Petunia,” is a giant stuffed rabbit. (I’m not making this up, you know!) Her appearance confirmed my nickname for the America’s Got Talent show: America’s Got a Lot of People Willing to Make Themselves Look Ridiculous to Get on Television. The big feature at the end was a guest appearance by Diana Ross, whose face looks like she’s had a lot of “work” done and whose hair looks like someone just cooked a plate of jet-black spaghetti noodles and hasn’t put the sauce on yet (so that’s where Michael Jackson got that look!). She did a medley of “Somewhere at Christmas,” “Sleigh Ride,” Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” “Jingle Bells” and “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” and followed that with a nostalgic original called “When I Think of Home.” I’ve never thought that much of Diana Ross’s voice, especially post-Supremes — “rougher” woman singers like Aretha Franklin and her just as great “Queen of Soul” predecessor, Dinah Washington, are more my taste in Black soul divas — but it’s held  up surprisingly well and, all the diva bitchiness about her private life that’s been reported over the years, she’s still a class act.