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SOUND OFF: Gather 'Round The Christmas GLEE

SOUND_OFF_Gather_Round_The_Christmas_GLEE_20010101

Today we are taking a look and a listen to the winter finale of Fox's hit musical comedy series GLEE and its accompanying soundtrack, GLEE: THE CHRISTMAS ALBUM, both of which premiered this week. 'Tis the season for all good GLEE gifts and if a special Christmas episode - "A Very Glee Christmas" - just wasn't enough, then the two recently released soundtrack albums can surely fuel your fire until the post-Superbowl special episode in the new year!

O Night Divine

GLEE: THE MUSIC, THE CHRISTMAS ALBUM

Come December 25th, stockings all across the country will surely be stuffed to the brim with two particularly potent pop culture presents if the caring giver - or Old Saint Nick - is a careful shopper and knows where exactly the true holiday glee lies: GLEE: THE CHRISTMAS ALBUM and GLEE: THE MUSIC VOLUME 4. While GLEE has set itself up over the last year and a half to be a cultural phenomenon quite unlike anything to hit television or theatre before, its resounding - near impossible - success in Season Two of the series, following the Golden Globe win for Best Series - Comedy or Musical, is even further proof that this is a franchise with legs. As was proven countless times over the course of Season One with the participation of Broadway luminaries Kristin Chenoweth, Neil Patrick Harris, Jonathan Groff and Idina Menzel, GLEE is a show that can let it's supporting stars shine and give young, as-yet-undiscovered talent a true stage on which to strut their surest stuff. Some blindingly bright surefire star power has been gleaned and polished to perfection in the flawless, glittering turn of newcomer Darren Criss as the one-named Blaine. Over the course of only three songs so far this year - Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream", Train's "Hey, Soul Sister" and, last night, a holiday duet with Chris Colfer in "Baby, It's Cold Outside" - he has established himself as a talent on the very highest level and as good as anyone else on a show filled with the very best in the business - as is revealed, in full, on GLEE: THE CHRISTMAS ALBUM.

One of the most welcome parts of the Christmas season is the music, and some of the very, very best Christmas music comes from the pens of Broadway's best tunesmiths. Case in point: on this album alone, which is merely twelve of the hundreds of well-known Christmas anthems, we have not only a Jerry Herman showstopper, but also a syncopated, slinky and suggestive duet from Frank Loesser - "We Need A Little Christmas" and "Baby, It's Cold Outside". Few songs fire up the spirit - man or Klaus - more than a Jerry Herman production number, but one taken from one of his top-flight scores - MAME - and given a full-bodied, barn-storming rendition by Amber Riley, Jenna Ushkowitz, Chris Colfer and company with "We Need A Little Christmas" is like intravenous eggnog for a grouch. While only a snippet was sung on the show last night - as is the case with half the songs on the soundtrack, and a few not included at all - the soundtrack is its own unique entity and shall be treated as such. And, speaking of grouches and grinches, k.d. lang makes a surprise appearance to sing a smoky, jazzy stop-and-start Peggy Lee art-song-ish take on "You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch" and, along with a lovely spoken word portion from Matt Morrison that was not included in the episode proper, it is a standout on a surprisingly strong soundtrack. Lang is one of the most idiosyncratic and talented voices in the recording industry, so to have her participation on one of the GLEE soundtracks is only a boon to their further pursuits for cameo song appearances in the future (Barbra, can you hear me?). The aforementioned "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is the one jazzy respite in a soundtrack encompassing all the many moods - merry to maudlin to mesmerized to macabre and beyond - of the happiest time of the year. If only the holidays themselves went over as smoothly, effectively and movingly as GLEE: THE CHRISTMAS ALBUM does.

With GLEE: THE CHRISTMAS ALBUM, the emphasis - with one sole exception - is mostly on the community spirit and communal singing that is so elementary to the power and success of the show - as is reflected in the six of the thirteen total selections availible on the album (with the iTunes Exclusive Bonus Track "Welcome Christmas" included in the total tally). Speaking of that iTunes Bonus Track, as attractive and innocuous as the song, "Welcome Christmas", may be - it's no "O Holy Night". Perhaps since it was the only curled-up-in-a-warm-blanket-by-the-fireplace-sounding of the three full chorus songs. Whatever the case, it's a good song - but, when taking the whole album altogether, there is one big, bright star atop this tree and it isn't "Welcome Christmas". But, first things first, and back to the choral performances: a light-hearted "Deck The Rooftop" by Lea Michele, Cory Monteith, Naya Rivera, Kevin McHale, Heather Morris, and Jenna Ushkowitz is a treat, and "The Most Wonderful Day of the Year" sounds just about that thanks to Chord Overstreet, Mark Salling, Kevin McHale, Lea Michele, Chris Colfer, Jenna Ushkowitz, and Heather Morris. The two other choral performance pieces are separated by gender: Cory Monteith, Mark Salling, and Kevin McHale offer a spirited "Jingle Bells" and Lea Michele, Amber Riley, Naya Rivera, and Jenna Ushkowitz are indelibly delectable on a particularly pretty and evocative rendition of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen". While I may find Amber Riley's "Angels We Have Heard On High" a bit over-the-top, your use may vary when it comes to gospel-tinged reinventions of holiday classics. Honestly, as if all this golly good GLEEfulness just wasn't enough, the whole album is worth purchasing for Matt Morrison's absolutely tree-top-top vocal performance topping "O Christmas Tree" alone. Enough good cannot be said about it. Less so than last night's episode - which included 2/3 of these songs, with one particularly fatal omission coming in the choice to not include "O Holy Night" in the telecast - the soundtrack emphasis is on the Christmas side of the proceedings and not on the characters and comedy. GLEE: THE CHRISTMAS ALBUM is all about the performers themselves doing great material - really, the tick-tock of the whole clock of GLEE when it hits the perfect balance of comedy/music/drama and it reaches its stride. It's no coincidence every single one of the best songs on the show so far have come from people BroadwayWorld fans have been hearing about for the better part of a decade - Morrison, Michele, Groff, Menzel, Chenoweth and, this year, Cheyenne Jackson, included. Furthermore, as Morrison reveals his true Broadway baby breeding in his moment beneath the mistletoe, so, too, does Lea Michele give all her good gifts - and she has a near-limitless supply, like a certain someone in the North Pole - to her three songs on the perfectly balanced and ordered soundtrack album, with Wham! to "WOW!"

As with all GLEE things, Ms. Michele is given ample space to shine - and emboldens herself as the true shining star set alight stop this gorgeous GLEE Christmas tree of a soundtrack. Taking on three of the most disparate Christmas songs in theme, style, mood, imagery and emphasis imagineable, Lea Michele leaves an unmistakable mark on "Merry Christmas, Darling", "Last Christmas" and "O Holy Night". While everyone from Karen Carpenter to Sam Harris have made "Merry Christmas, Darling" a winner, it is with this subdued, sentimental and sweetly, slightly despondent affectation that she makes it what it is. No easy feat - and you never see her sweat or the motion of the actorly wheels - "Click click click", as Katharine Hepburn once described it - in motion. Like snow in a globe, the music and vocals and pristine production surround us and, for a few moments, we may feel as though we are actually in the snowglobe. Again, the fact that enough time and care and attention has been made to make this album just right makes the subsequent show it accompanied a marked disappointment. For if only the unconscionable decision to not include Lea Michele's positively heavenly "O Holy Night" - among a handful of her best vocals ever on the show - were to be included in the assessment, it would be impossible to not acknowledge what is and what could have been. Yet, here it is, and always will be, on the album - forever. Like Christmas. Thank Klaus.

It's plain to see as a Christmas tree that we must have been very good boys and girls this year to deserve a celebratory Christmas album quite this good - and by a cast this great! Unwrap it now! Also, if you missed "A Very GLEE Christmas", then click here to watch the full episode now, but be sure to pick up the soundtrack for the full experience of a truly GLEE Christmas! http://www.hulu.com/watch/198183/glee-a-very-glee-christmas

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