A Soulful ‘Motown Christmas’ at Signature

MotownChristmasBecause Christmas is mandatory on entertainment stages all month, it’s no surprise that a cabaret at Signature Theatre is again devoted to the Yuletide songbook. But in a clever and very welcome variation, they’ve approached the holiday through the classic interpretations of one of America’s favorite labels.

“A Motown Christmas” brings together enduring holiday originals that came out of the storied Detroit studio, alongside their fresh and soulful arrangements of the standards for a thoroughly agreeable mix.

Led by music director Mark G. Meadows, who strikes a John Legend-like profile at the grand piano as he sings, conducts, and occasionally moves to electronic keyboards, there are enduring Motown songs like “What Christmas Means to Me,” first recorded by Stevie Wonder in 1967, and some rare finds, such as Marvin Gaye’s “Purple Snowflakes” a 1960s ditty that wasn’t released until 1992, eight years after his death (Gaye rewrote it as a minor hit, “Pretty Little Baby” in 1965).

As Motown did on their holiday albums, though, they mixed new songs with the standards and so there were a lot of swinging versions of songs we know so well — with the bulk of the arrangements taken from the 1970 “Jackson 5 Christmas Album,” from the opening “Up on the Rooftop” to “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “The Christmas Song” (with a “Jingle Bells” ending); to the concluding “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” that shifts to “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

This hasn’t been the best year for the Jackson 5 legacy, however, after the devastating documentary “Leaving Neverland” aired on HBO in January. So they mention the Jackson 5 just once, and attribute “Give Love on Christmas Day” to the Temptations — though it was written for the J5 and wouldn’t be recorded by that quintet until a decade later.

(To be fair, the Christmas album came out in the first year of Jackson 5 superstardom when Michael was just 12 – years before any accusations of abuse arose).

Most of the vocals are taken up by Shayla S. Simmons and Jade Jones, the big personality who was so good in Round House Theatre’s “School Girls” earlier this season.

Simmons hits her stride with a song not necessarily associated with Christmas, the unstoppable “Dancing in the Streets,” adapting it with just a one line revision: “The holidays are here and the time is right …”

Jade is capable of a big, gritty soulful voice which makes for great performances, but reminded me that Motown didn’t really have a similarly styled vocalist in their roster (though maybe Florence Ballard, unleashed from the Supremes, could have filled that role).

Instead, the thinner sophistication of Diana Ross ruled there, so they sang her version of “My Favorite Things” that owed as much to John Coltrane’s version, thanks to sax man Elijah Jamal Balbed and the jazzy arrangement by Meadows.

Part of Motown’s studio magic may have been due to their backing musicians – Detroit jazz musicians who shaped the sound. That kind of vibe lives again through the drumming of Danté Pope (featured on a “Little Drummer Boy” of course) and especially the intricate bass playing of Eliot Seppa, who handled those jumping lines originated by James Jamerson masterfully. Meadows own jazz piano playing was very good too, and though it didn’t always adhere to Motown stylings, I could hear him lead a small combo like this all night.

Jade added a lot to the humor of the night, from her expressions being grossed out at the prospect of Santa kissing mommy, to her greed in “Santa Baby” — something that doesn’t appear to have been on any Motown Christmas album, but Jade just wanted to sing it.

Also on the song list for the show (but not played on press night) was that R&B holiday classic “This Christmas” that originated with Donny Hathaway, and not Motown. (If they did want some Motown originals, I’m surprised they didn’t include Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas,” Smokey Robinson’s “It’s Christmas Time” or “Christmas Everyday,” or even the Supremes signature take on “Silver Bells”).

It’s clear there’s enough Motown Christmas to go around but there is also a case to be made for balance, which meant they included Motown songs that had nothing to do with the season (although, of course, “Money” ultimately does).

For all the cheer, the real heart of the show came toward the end with a trilogy of deeply affecting songs of social import that came from the studio, but hardly get any play live at all. So it was gratifying to hear a jumping version of Wonder’s “Living for the City” followed by a terrific and spare version of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)” in an arrangement that must be Meadows’ own, leading right into the ever-topical “What’s Going On?” all speaking to the struggles that are just as much a part of the winter even as we are distracted by the tinsel.

The trilogy gave heart and weight to a night that would still be worthy with just the jingle bell fluff.

Overall, the evening went so well, the audience audibly groaned when told the show was wrapping up.

Even so, Simmons consoled in song: “Through the years we all will be together, if Signature Theatre allows…”

Sure hope they do.

 

“A Motown Christmas”runs through Dec. 21 at the Signature Theatre, Arlington, VA.

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