Christmas in New York (Manchester)

Dave Cunningham enjoys some Christmas songs from New York at Manchester’s Palace Theatre

Christmas songs tend to be cynical marketing exercises exploiting seasonal sentiment to secure sales. But Christmas in New York offers far more than just a collection of over-sweet tunes. It is notable for Broadway star Eden Espinosa making her professional stage debut in the UK backed by a supporting cast of six West End stars.

Eden Espinosa
Eden Espinosa
© Spekulation Entertainment

The show follows the format of the festive TV specials in which the star opens and closes each act and the support cast perform in-between. Considering that musicals are regarded as the height of theatrical glamour, there is a strange lack of showbiz pizzazz. There are no props or backdrops and little effort is made to set a mood by the use of lighting.

The male singers perform in the relaxed hands-in-pockets style of lounge singers and some of the female stars seem to have been dressed by blind tailors. Most significantly there are no spoken introductions to the songs (or efforts to welcome or involve the audience) in the first act.

The show warms up in the second half as Espinosa starts to work the room. She welcomes the audience to her home and leads us in a chorus of "Silent Night." The New York aspect of the show is dealt with early. After the full company perform the title track Espinosa delivers Alicia Keys’s "Empire State of Mind." Although she does full justice to the anthem, Espinosa builds gradually to its climax and her subtle approach, with initial stark musical backing, adds an almost sinister quality.

Musical director Joe Louis Robinson limits the sentimentality of the songs but maximises their impact with simple musical arrangements, so that "Last Christmas" has just a piano backing. Tori Allen-Martin in particular benefits from this approach and is able to turn "Perfect Year" into a torch song full of longing and regret. The technique of starting a song as a solo and developing it into a duet works perfectly with Luke Kempner and Zoe Rainey’s sincere interpretation of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." The only point where Robinson’s revisions do not work is when the lightweight "A Winter’s Tale" is merged with the considerably more powerful "In the Bleak Midwinter."

The cast makes excellence use of their theatrical experience in the lighter comedy numbers. Tori Allen-Martin and Andy Coxon reverse the genders in "Baby It’s Cold Outside" to offer a predatory female stalking a (initially) shy male. Lucy May Barker gives a marvellously husky vocal to "Santa Baby." Having exercised restraint throughout the show, Espinosa cuts loose and leads the cast through a swooping vocal on the closing number "O Holy Night."

You couldn’t ask for a better vocal interpretation of the songs in Christmas in New York and the moderation applied to the more cloying numbers is very welcome. Greater efforts to develop a warmer seasonal atmosphere and the show would be a winner.

– Dave Cunningham