BWW Review: Christine Ebersole and Billy Stritch Get Cozy with SNOWFALL at Birdland
In SNOWFALL at Birdland, Christine Ebersole and Billy Stritch offered up a holiday show that was equal parts holly-jolly and melancholy. Through it all, though, there was an undercurrent of warm insularity, each bolstered by the other's presence, even when one would sit a number out and simply watch their friend perform.
Once onstage, Ebersole and Stritch remarked how the performance, part of the venue's Broadway at Birdland concert series, was their first Christmas show in eight years. "And you haven't changed a bit," Stritch told her, with Ebersole purring back, "Oh, go on." The pair started things off with a mashup of "Winter Weather" (Ted Shapiro) and "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" (Irving Berlin) a la Tony Bennett, assisted by Tom Hubbard on bass and Ray Marchica on drums.
Throughout the night, the pair sang a brew of holiday numbers and odes to New York, with a few Rodgers and Hammerstein classics mixed in for good measure. Following the opening medley, the duo turned to "Sunday In New York" (Peter Nero), with Ebersole gleefully revealing it was going to be a good night because she found parking on the street. In many ways, it set the tone for the evening, showing that they weren't going to be tied down conceptually, and proving that with harmonies so tight and effortless as they were, it hardly mattered.
Opening up about being an empty nester these days, Ebersole recalled that her children were just babies when she first sang "The Folks Who Live on the Hill" (Jerome Kern). Noting that her kids all attended college at the same time, she teased that finances were a big motivator for her doing the show, cracking, "After all, it takes a village." But after sharing her own experience of sitting in rocking chairs and completing jigsaw puzzles with her husband, the bittersweet song was infused with an added helping of hopelessness, until she reached a solo that was nothing short of heartbreaking, even appearing a bit verklempt for a brief moment when the number came to an end.
At first, the choice behind some of the numbers for a Christmas show (aside from being personal favorites) was not immediately clear, though their jazzy, uptempo take on "My Favorite Things" bridged the gap between Rodgers and Hammerstein classics and---depending on who you ask---Christmas songs. But in the case of "The Folks Who Live on the Hill," the pair mined a not-uncommon holiday feeling: the homesickness that can strike even when you're already home.
Although Ebersole and Stritch harmonized on most of the numbers, Stritch had a few opportunities to ride solo, from a lively cover of "(Everybody's Waitin' for) The Man with the Bag" (Irving Taylor/Dudley Brooks/Hal Stanley), to a tender performance of "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" (Frank Loesser).
Still, SNOWFALL was never better than when the duo's harmonies really got going. Ebersole and Stritch seemed to enjoy faking out the crowd, drawing them in with a straightforward take or a subdued intro before bursting forth with joy, from the show's title number, "Snowfall" (Claude Thornhill), to "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" (Rodgers/Hammerstein) from OKLAHOMA! And it was effective, time and time again, though Ebersole's climactic, world-weary solo in "Surrey" was devastating and gorgeously rendered.
The show's crown jewel was the pair's rendition of "Winter Wonderland" (Felix Bernard), once again seemingly straightforward--- that is, until Stritch's original arrangement exploded. From their staccato delivery, nearly bordering on rapping, to their passionate scatting, the pair upended one of the most time-worn Christmas songs in a way that made it feel as fresh as newly-fallen snow.
The set list was packed, leaving them little time for banter, which was a slight shame, considering that the ease of their relationship translated just as much during moments between songs. Yet returning for the encore, Ebersole drew laughs, joking, "I did appreciate your warm and generous applause, even though I was coming back onstage, anyway." The pair went on to sing "White Christmas," including the original verse about "Beverly Hills, LA."
If the holidays are meant to be a time for people to come together, there's something special about a pair of performers who not only sound incredible together, but, as shown in their harmonies, know and trust each other so well as performers, too.
Troy Frisby is an entertainment writer and digital news producer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @TroyFrisby.