With so much necessary social distancing and mask wearing, it may be a little difficult to get in touch with Christmas cheer this December. But lucky us, the A.D. Players are presenting (either in-person in their parking lot, or virtually, take your pick) Merry Christmas Darling: Heidi Kettenring Sings Karen Carpenter, where you can take a walk down memory lane and enjoy Christmas standards—as well as the non-holiday-centric hits—from The Carpenters, the wildly successful brother and sister duo that had all sorts of cheerful pop songs on the charts in the 1970s and produced a Christmas album that is still beloved to this day.
A Chicago-based actress, Kettenring has starred as Belle in the national tour of Beauty and the Beast and in Wicked (Broadway in Chicago), in addition to winning awards for numerous other productions. She is really sort of a Renaissance performer, with television acting credits as well as numerous performances with major symphony orchestras. She even voices the Disney Princess audiobooks.
Make no mistake: She has a wonderful voice, and it was enjoyable hearing her sing every song. She doesn’t really sound like Karen Carpenter, except on the occasional note, but that really is not the point—we are here to hear Kettenring sing, and the songs of Carpenter are a wonderful choice to show off her pleasing and compelling voice as she covers everything from nostalgic Christmas classics of the 1950s to pop hits circa the 1970s.
Although the A.D. Players offer tickets for both an in-person, outdoor concert in the George Theater's parking lot, there's also a streamable, pre-recorded concert from inside the George. I caught the virtual production, where I was able to easily see Kettenring’s expressiveness and her total engagement while interpreting these well-known songs on the screen in front of me. It is a delightful collection, particularly if you are a fan of the Carpenters and their catchy tunes.
The show begins with “The Christmas Waltz” and then incorporates hits like “Yesterday Once More,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” and, what was for me a highlight, “A Song for You.” Kettenring’s rendition of “For All We Know” was superb, while the best Christmas songs were “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and, of course, Carpenter’s signature holiday number, “Merry Christmas, Darling.” The Burt Bacharach classic “They Long to Be (Close to You)” was one of my favorite moments of the entire concert. Just beautiful.
Kettenring made a smart decision not to try and imitate Carpenter as much as pay homage to her—always a good strategy when you are performing the songs of a singer whose voice really was unique. Instead, she opted to make these renditions her own, and I for one savored the results. What can I say? She has a beautiful voice, and her love of music is contagious. With this production she is also supported by a band skillful enough to bring it when the time is right without ever overwhelming the star turn from Kettenring. Doug Wright’s saxophone solos and work on wind instruments throughout the show were a key standout of the performance, while back-up singers Lara Philip and Alex Newkirk were strong as well.
While the few quibbles I have are certainly not the end of the world, I did find them distracting, not only from these wonderful songs, but also from the lead singer’s considerable talent. For one thing, it would have been nice to glam up this show—it is a holiday performance—and most of the people onstage seemed a bit underdressed.
The narration may have been intended to ground the show by connecting Carpenter’s story with its star’s own life, but the results are bizarre. In the end, there just weren’t many points of overlap that were meaningful or revealing. Kettenring has had, and continues to have, a heck of a career, hearing her experiences would have been fine. So, too, would hearing more about Carpenter’s life have worked, especially since her artistry is a big part of this show’s draw anyway.
Instead, they tried to have it both ways, and, as a result, we got a lot of superficial “fun facts” (she loved softball and Disney!) that revealed very little about Carpenter’s musicianship or the more substantial aspects of her life. There is an art to the homage, and while the musical component was excellent, the narrative component seemed off-key. A more focused script would easily have dealt with this issue.
Regardless, I love the idea of this show, and bringing back songs that are etched into the consciousness of so many of us. Part of what made Carpenter's music so impressive was that she had an incredible vocal and emotional range. While her voice could be low and powerful, she could also sing just as beautifully in a higher register, exuding joy one moment and a vulnerability that was infinitely relatable the next—a difficult artistic feat for sure. And it's gladdening to see Kettenring and company take the time to really celebrate what Carpenter could do. So, have yourself a merry little Christmas remembering a pop icon who could never be mistaken for anyone else. We’re lucky to be in Houston where we get to hear Kettenring bring these songs back to life.