‘Swinging’ Christmas Show Returns to Roost at Birdland

A Christmas show so good, you’ll scarf it right up: L to R: Jim Caruso, Klea Blackhurst, Billy Stritch. | Photo by Bill Westmoreland

 

Nightly, Tues. Dec. 21 through Sat. Dec. 25, 5:30pm at Birdland Jazz Club 

The annual holiday stage show that began as a tribute to annual televised holiday specials leaves little doubt about its own staying power, when A Swinging Birdland Christmas returns to its namesake Midtown Manhattan venue for its 12th annual engagement (including a pre-taped, COVID-precautious version last year). The show is back in the brick and mortar business this year, and ready to serve the musical version of comfort food that has audiences returning year after year. Taking its chemistry, camaraderie, and American Songbook selections from those (don’t call them “old”) classic TV specials hosted by the likes of Judy Garland and Andy Williams, A Swinging Birdland Christmas gets its potent on stage mojo from what this scribe once referred to as “Cabaret’s Dream Team.” Klea Blackhurst, Jim Caruso, and Billy Stritch will be joined, as always, by stalwart Swinging Birdland musicians Steve Doyle (bass) and Daniel Glass (drums).

With swinging arrangements penned by Stritch (a cheddar-sharp composer who’ll also be on piano for the evening), the vocalists–as a trio, duo, or solo, put their own first class stamp on beloved classics including The Christmas Waltz, Kay Thompson’s The Holiday Season, Sleigh Ride, Snow, and other favorites. As for those quicksilver qualities that make it worth your while to bring your proof of vaccination and best holiday-themed mask to Birdland, we’ve got the answers below–in response to questions for the trio so tight they’ve been known to share the same scarf (see the above photo for conclusive proof).

Scott Stiffler for Chelsea Community News (CCNews): It’s been quite some time since the three of you have appeared together for an evening on the Birdland stage. What makes this year’s run of Christmas shows stand apart, and stay true to the show’s traditions?

Klea Blackhurst: It’s true that the Christmas show has had a break, but I feel like Birdland is home and we are always there! So it’s kind of a trick question!! I feel older and wiser this year and certainly grateful for these boys. It’s really a joy to make music with them.

Jim Caruso: In the middle of the shutdown last year, we filmed A Swinging Birdland Christmas for an empty Birdland Theater, and the concert was aired virtually. It was satisfying to perform, sold well, and gave us something happy to concentrate on during an awful time. We even did a Zoom “party” (wearing Christmas sweaters) for VIP viewers. But as you can imagine, there is really nothing like entertaining real, honest-to-goodness humans in person! Our show has become such a tradition for our audience, to say nothing of what it means to Klea, Billy, Daniel, Steve, and me! I have no doubts that being able to see those smiling faces in the house this year will be good for our hearts and souls. Isn’t that the meaning of Christmas?

Billy Stritch: Obviously there is a heightened sense of gratitude this year for the opportunity to be performing our Christmas show for live audiences. It’s something that is easy to take for granted during normal times, but this year I am feeling very aware of how special it is to do what we do in a room full of people who have been missing live performances. I think the shows this year will definitely be infused with a tremendous sense of joy and good will!

CCNews: Besides the “Christmas at Birdland” recording, what holiday albums and/or artists, do you listen to at home this time of year?

Blackhurst: Nat King Cole, Barbra Streisand, Julie Andrews and an endless supply of those Firestone Tires yearly vinyl offerings.

Caruso: I love some of the newer holiday CDs like A Holly Dolly Christmas by Dolly Parton, and Leslie Odom’s The Christmas Album. But like everyone else, I gravitate towards the music I listened to growing up. My parents always had Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and Andy Williams blaring, and I was obsessed with Streisand’s Jingle Bells? But honestly, the second I hear the first notes of Vince Guaraldi’s Christmas Time Is Here, I’m in a cozy holiday mood. It’s slightly melancholy, but takes me right back to a happy, simpler time.

Stritch: I’ve just been listening to a new Nat King Cole collection that was just released. His amazing voice has been enhanced with beautiful new orchestral and choral treatments and there are a few guest vocalists that are featured in newly created duets. Normally I’m not a fan of these kings of reissues, but this one feels totally new. It’s called A Sentimental Christmas with Nat King Cole and Friends. And my all-time favorite is the Carpenters classic Christmas Portrait album. It’s truly timeless!

CCNews: Congrats on this, the 12th year for your show. Out of all years past, what’s your favorite unscripted moment?

Blackhurst: Thank you—12 years is an accomplishment! I already know what Jim’s going to say… and I must concur!

Caruso: The first year we performed the show, Donny and Marie Osmond were performing their Christmas show at the Marquis on Broadway. Of course we invited them to the show. One night, there was a knock on the dressing room door, and Donny stormed in, with his trademark high energy and mega-watt smile. He had time to check out the first half of our show before running back to his own extravaganza. As we were on stage performing the opening number, It’s the Holiday Season (written by Kay Thompson, and recorded by Andy Williams and the Osmond Brothers, among others), he jumped onto the Birdland stage, grabbed a mic, sang a few lines and harmonized with us. The audience was stunned, we were thrilled, and I might never be the same. When we were putting together the Christmas at Birdland CD two years ago, there was no question that we’d invite Donny to be a very special guest. I texted him, he immediately said yes, and it’s certainly my favorite cut on the album.

Stritch: I have to go all the way back to 2010 for that. It was our very first year and during the opening number Donny Osmond (who was doing a Broadway run with Marie) stormed the stage to sing with us! It was truly a moment I’ll never forget, and I will always remember the look on Jim’s face when he realized what was going on. Donny sang the last chorus of the song and as soon as he was done, he ran out the door to make his half-hour call at the Marquis Theater. We were all left with the feeling of, “What just happened?’’ ”

Stretch Blackhurst, and Caruso make the season bright, with their annual Christmas-themed run at Birdland. | Photo by Bill Westmoreland

 

CCNews: You’ve logged a lot of rehearsal and performance time together. What do the other two cast members do that consistently amuses or amazes you?

Blackhurst: Jim is the single most dapper man I know. Also the most dapper single man I know. His suits and casual wear constantly amaze. He really cares about the details that will set us apart in a good way. I’m not sure why we don’t have our own television special yet! He has certainly visualized our outfits. Billy is an extraordinary talent. I love how different each performance is. Billy sometimes creates a beautiful spiritual experience—and for the next show, he’ll take the same song and make the room levitate with energy! In the Christmas show, this happens often on A Child is Born. In our Hoagy Carmichael show, this happens with Georgia on My Mind. He has the ability to immediately transfer the idea he’s having into his hands and on to the keys. It’s quite a gift.

Caruso: Billy and I have been BFFs for almost 40 years. We’re like brothers, and that comes with all the private jokes, asides, and side-eyes you can imagine. And we both love teasing Klea about her endless obsession with random books like Cool Comfort: America’s Romance with Air-Conditioning.

Stritch: Klea is one of the most well-read people I know and Jim is always amused by her enthusiasm for trivial facts and obscure knowledge. She can tell you about the most mundane thing and make it seem funny and fresh. What I love about Jim is his excitement about the Christmas season and all that goes with it. He’s definitely kept his childlike sense of wonder about all of it and I find it very endearing. I can sometimes be a bit of a curmudgeon at this time of year, and being with him certainly raises my spirits.

CCNews: Bonus Question: No question at all. Feel free to talk about anything not covered above, related to the show or wildly off-topic.

Caruso: It’s a beautiful thing to have a regular holiday gig to look forward to, and to entertain so many folks. The show has become a yearly tradition for the five of us [the trio, plus Steve Doyle on bass and Daniel Glass on drums], but also for so many audience members and their families who return year after year. We’re like less-leggy Rockettes. But to tell you the truth, the best part is that I get to live out my family band dreams. I wanted to be the Osmonds or the Partridge Family, but I was an only child. It would have made for a very small family band. Who knew that I’d be lucky enough to harmonize with dear friends on an iconic stage every year, and have the opportunity to create traditions. Starting in November, we rehearse at my place, so the wreath goes up and we wear plaid. We always exchange presents in the dressing room, and celebrate the run with family and friends at Christmas dinner. I know our audiences enjoy the songs, the music, and the fun. But I can’t help but think they recognize and embrace the connection we have to each other.

“A Swinging Birdland Christmas” is performed Tuesday, December 21 through Saturday, December 25, 5:30pm at Birdland Jazz Club (315 W. 44th St. btw. 8th & 9th Aves.). For reservations: 212-581-3080 or www.BirdlandJazz.com. In compliance with NHC rules for indoor activities, Birdland requires proof of vaccination or a verified medical exemption from all customers, staff, and performers.

KLEA BLACKHURST is an actress, singer, and comedienne known for her award-winning tribute to Ethel Merman, Everything the Traffic Will Allow. She recently appeared Off-Broadway with Hayley Mills in the comedy Party Face, at City Center Stage 2. She starred as Miss Lemon in the Nashville premiere of The Nutty Professor, directed by the legendary Jerry Lewis and featuring a score by Marvin Hamlisch and Rupert Holmes. She’s performed with symphony orchestras and in theatrical productions across the country and abroad including the London Palladium presentation of Jerry Herman’s Broadway with Angela Lansbury, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra tribute to Marvin Hamlisch, 15 Mabel Mercer Cabaret Conventions, New York’s Town Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, The Chicago Humanities Festival and as Ado Annie in the BBC Proms concert of Oklahoma!  On television Klea has appeared in Ryan Murphy’s “Pose” and “The Knick” on Showtime. She spent two seasons on the IFC Channel comedy series “Onion News Network.” This season, Klea debuted her new show “One of the Girls: the Words and Music of Jerry Herman” at Birdland Theater.

JIM CARUSO is the host of “Jim Caruso’s Cast Party,” the wildly popular weekly open mic night that has brought a sprinkling of Broadway glitz and urbane wit to Birdland in New York City every Monday night since 2004. “Cast Party” has been seen at Jazz at Lincoln Center, across the country, and, most recently, on YouTube as “Pajama Cast Party.” Jim made his Broadway debut alongside Liza Minnelli in the Tony Award-winning Liza’s At The Palace!, singing, dancing and celebrating the music and arrangements of Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers.  He has won six MAC Awards and eight BroadwayWorld Awards for his work in nightclubs, performed with the New York Pops in a tribute to Kander & Ebb, with Rosemary Clooney celebrating Bing Crosby, and sang the songs of Hope & Crosby with Michael Feinstein at Carnegie Hall. Jim was honored to sing with Barbara Cook, Lauren Bacall and a bevy of Broadway stars at President Clinton’s First State Dinner at the White House. He also books and produces the “Broadway at Birdland” concert series, and performs regularly with Billy Stritch at Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle Hotel. Jim’s two albums, The Swing Set and Caruso Live and In Person, are available online.

BILLY STRITCH is one of the premier singer-pianists on the New York and national jazz and cabaret scenes. He began his career in Houston, Texas, where he formed the vocal trio Montgomery, Plant and Stritch. The trio performed all over the world from 1983 until they disbanded in 1990. A chance meeting with Liza Minnelli in 1991 resulted in her asking him to create vocal arrangements for Liza’s record-breaking extravaganza Stepping Out at Radio City. Billy recently toured with the legendary Tony Bennett, as his pianist and musical director. A solo entertainer in his own right, he has performed his own shows (including tributes to Mel Tormé and Cy Coleman) across the country. Billy also serves as music director for such leading vocalists as Marilyn Maye, Linda Lavin, Linda Eder, Christine Ebersole and Paulo Szot. He is the co-writer of the Grammy Award-winning song “Does He Love You,” recorded by Reba McEntire and Linda Davis. The single reached the number one spot on the Billboard Country music chart, winning a Grammy Award and selling over five million copies. In August 2021, he celebrated his new solo album Billy’s Place from Club44 Records, with an engagement at Birdland.

 

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