Anthony Santelmo Jr.: Christmas in July

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Anthony Santelmo Jr.

Christmas in July

November 23, 2019

Reviewed by John Hoglund for Cabaret Scenes

The standard holiday repertoire has been recorded by all the greats through the ages. What makes a new Christmas album stand out from the crowd? It starts with choosing good songs, not being afraid to be different, and showing a healthy dose of imagination. Mostly, it’s not repeating the exact same things others have done. To that end, Anthony Santelmo Jr. scores well on this new disc, Christmas in July. Seemingly, this handsomely packaged, wildly ambitious double CD, brashly unleashes his inner Yule spirit. The results are diverse and interesting. With some predictable classic fare mixed with a potpourri of clever novelty tunes that are mostly lesser known, this holiday project comes across as a merry effort from this dramatic singer and his multi-talented production team.

It all kicks off with two gleeful ditties that are fun: Johnny Mercer’s “Santa Claus Came in the Spring” and “Who Says There Ain’t No Santa Claus?” (Sammy Fain/E.Y. Harburg)—not to be confused with a cut on disc two with the same name by Burton Lane and Harburg. A more serious tone follows with “There Was No Snow in Bethlehem” (Coppolla/Jeans) paired with “Wind, Sand and Stars” (Edwards). This challenging set of songs, with classical overtones, is more complex and has Santelmo working a bit in spots.

It’s likely that you grew up hearing familiar holiday chestnuts like the seraphic “O Little Town of Bethlehem” here fused with a sweet “Bella Notte” from Disney’s Lady and the Tramp (Peggy Lee and Sonny Burke). It’s well sung here in a memorable cut. “Silent Night” (Franz Xaver Gruber /Joseph Mohr), written a few centuries ago, is mashed with cabaret singer Meg Flather’s “Powder Blue” for an earnest cut. Listeners will also find cuts that may be year-round favorites, like a beautifully arranged “Cold Enough to Snow” (Alan Menken/Stephen Schwartz) in medley with Johnny Burke’s rarity, “The Day the Snow Is Meltin’.” Arranged by the late maestro Barry Levitt with trademark grandiosity, this medley is beautifully conceived and features his strong vocals.

Santelmo uses his theatrical experience and training to optimum effect on a compelling “I Don’t Remember Christmas” by David Shire and Richard Maltby, Jr. from off-Broadway’s Starting Here, Starting Now. It sizzles, building the patter-song climax to a frenzy that is exciting and perfectly suited for his full-voiced vocal style. He shows a keen sense of whimsy on the comical romp, “No Chestnuts Tonight” by Barry Levitt and Peter Napolitano. It all takes a darker turn with “A Christmas Hallelujah.” This is the revered song by Leonard Cohen presented here with additional Christmas lyrics by Cloverton. Sung in a rather high key, the song conveys a message that is puzzling in this bohemian ode that has its special moments fused with messages about Christ. Surely, this is a challenging song to pull off, and the results are mixed at best.

Anthony Santelmo Jr. has a strong, well-trained baritone-tenor voice. It is one that is best suited for operetta, oratorio, or theater. It’s a strong instrument that is often compelling in scope. Occasionally, it would be to his advantage to lower the key as on the smaller ballads that call for a more intimate touch. (Barbara Cook did this with much success.) That aside, he has an individual style that he remains true to, and it can be engaging. When using the gentler side of his voice, he offers a warmth and personalization that takes it all up a notch. He manages this in spades on a touching, finely phrased “Be Warmer This Winter” by Stan Freeman and Franklin Underwood, where he truly pulls the listener in on some defining moments with a beauty that is a highlight. Operatic and lush theatrical voices, used to filling large venues, face tricky issues when recording. Santelmo’s potent voice is so strong and naturally theatrical, it makes choosing the right songs vital. The best example of this comes with “The Best Gift” (O’Kun). This beautifully arranged ballad that is sung with gentle feeling, shows the best of this singer on another highlight.

Whether it’s Christmas in July or all year round, this album of carefully chosen songs has something for everyone. It is also a showcase of talented musicianship led by Jeffrey Klitz (piano/arrangements), Jon Burr (bass), Boots Maleson (bass), Rob Thomas (violin), Howie Gordon (drums), Stefan Arngim (guitar), and the late Barry Levitt, whose musical contributions are extraordinary.

John Hoglund

For over 30 years, John Hoglund has been a respected entertainment writer covering cabaret, jazz, theater and recordings. His writings have appeared in numerous outlets including the Bistro Bits column for Back Stage. John moderated seminars and forums for the International Cabaret Conference At Yale. He produced many celebrity fundraisers in NYC including one of the first benefits after 9/11: “HeartSong:The Heroes' Concert” at The Bottom Line featuring 36 major stars. He co-produced “HeartSong2: The Heroes' Concert” for Katrina victims at Symphony Space and “Miracle On 35th Street” with a star-studded lineup. Other fund raising efforts include the first benefits for Broadway Cares and God's Love, We Deliver. John served on the Board of Directors of MAC for 12 years. He is well known for championing new and rising talents.