A JOLLY OSMOND HOLIDAY
To fans and detractors alike, Donny and Marie represent a cultural and show business ethos so strong, and so specific, that their actual talents sometimes get lost in the shuffle. Fifty years of Osmond entertainment creates a mythology of nostalgia, squared—in both senses of the word—their family friendly performance style isn’t just rooted in their own history, but in the faux MGM history of Vaudeville itself.
Fans have a deep connection: to their own memories of being young and in love, to crushing on Donny and/or Marie; but also to an idea of what they believe America once was. Clean. Heart-felt. Simple. For some, the camp factor is also a big plus—but that’s really in the eye of the beholder. Donny and Marie are good sports, and both make jokes about themselves and each other—but they are sincere about who they are and what they do.
Detractors find the whole gee-whiz/show-must-go-on/Mormon family values/little bit country/little bit rock and roll shtick impossible to stomach. They want it all to be a lie—imagining, perhaps, that Marie’s well documented emotional struggles mask even deeper secrets, or trying to find some hint of the bad guy in the polite, gently humorous Donny.
But little of that has anything to do with their music. These two grew up in a family that put a high value on musical accomplishment. As Donny and Marie blow into town and settle in for a three-week Christmas gig at the Pantages—astonishingly, it’s their first time performing live together in Los Angeles—perhaps it’s time to take a fresh look at their actual abilities rather than settling for ironic solipsism.
Donny Osmond has a remarkably clear and powerful pop tenor voice, and he is arguably a better singer today than he was in his youth. Everything for him feels effortless. There’s a poignant moment when he pays tribute to his mentor, Andy Williams, by singing “Moon River” and you feel his genuine love and appreciation. What isn’t as readily apparent, though, is Donny’s emotional connection to the song itself. I’d like to know more about what the music of “Moon River” means to him.
Physically, Donny is ridiculously agile, most notably in “Yo-Yo,” which utilizes tape of him with his brothers doing the song some forty years ago, and imaginatively interlaces it with live singing and dancing. Four backup dancers boisterously fill in for his siblings, and yes, they are much more graceful than the Osmond brothers—but Donny is a far better dancer today than he was as a teenager. A couple of seasons ago he was the celebrity champion of Dancing with the Stars and it shows.
At the end of “Yo-Yo,” Donny makes a fun display of sinking to the stage in well-earned exhaustion; but I have a sneaking suspicion that he could be faking a little. Sure he’s probably tired, but he isn’t out of energy—not by a long shot.
Dancing with the Stars is one of the go-to points of humor in the show. Donny won his season, but Marie came up third in hers—and she collapsed—as every human being with access to the internet is certainly aware. The one-upmanship is fun to a point—but it wears out its welcome in the second act, and by the time we get hit with the show’s climactic DWTS joke, it’s enough already. They give it a holiday reference—as if it’s only happening on the one night—but it’s likely a bit they also do in their Vegas show.
While Donny is easy and affable, Marie has a different kind of energy. There’s an urgency to her work—as if she’s out to prove herself with every single song, every single joke, and every bit of choreography. Sometimes it’s a little scary. She goes into the audience at one point (they both do, rather often) and she orders a man to stand up so she can kiss him, leaving her lipstick mark on his bald head. You get the feeling there would be hell to pay if he had tried to back out of it.
Her singing matters to her. For Donny, singing seems like something he does. For Marie, it seems like something she is—which is a little bittersweet, since Donny’s instrument is in better shape. She is a practiced performer, and she utilizes impressive technique to place her vowels and nasal resonance effectively, but the effort is sometimes evident—particularly in her upper register.
I love that Marie wants to sing Puccini and Kander and Ebb, and God knows the audience goes crazy for her singing Madame Butterfly—a little bit country and a little bit opera—but she doesn’t have the vocal nuance or clarity of a true classical singer—and coming out in a kimono, like a little girl playing dress-up, doesn’t help.
Yet then, without skipping a beat, she hits it out of the park with her rendition of Kander and Ebb’s “The World Goes ‘Round,” nailing it both vocally and emotionally. She has a corny bit of dialogue she does as an intro, about how the song applies to everyone, whatever their circumstances, but then she gets going, and suddenly the show-biz optimism falters, and we get a glimpse of despair.
The show is heavy on medleys of holiday songs, mixed with some of their hits as a duo, and as solo acts. There is a lot of video footage. The historical performance footage is fabulous—and meticulously in sync with the live show. The atmosphere footage is not as successful. Do we really need random video of cars skidding on ice during “Let in Snow?” And when Marie sings “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” it feels cheap to show footage of actual soldiers returning home.
The staging itself is agreeably ramshackle. Stagehands push wobbly stairs around, sweep up fake snowflakes, and the choreography is efficient, if not exactly inspired.
Perhaps the budget was used up on Marie’s costumes—which are terrific—and she delights in them; happily preening in her sparkles. I lost count of her wardrobe changes but suffice to say if there’s a sequin shortage on the west coast anytime soon, it’s Marie’s fault. She looks great—a happy situation since her daughter designed the clothes.
Marie makes a number of references to her well-publicized weight loss as a spokeswoman for NutriSystem, and like the DWTS jokes, her product plugs for that, for her doll collection, and for her various charitable endeavors start wearing a bit thin. More singing, please. Less selling. And with all due respect to Donny and Marie’s efforts in creating and conceiving the show, maybe it’s time to bring in a director equal to their musical talents.
There’s one terrible misstep toward the end of the show. Donny and Marie pay tribute to the many, many, very, very famous stars they have worked with. The images go by, they sing wistfully, and it feels exactly like the “In Memorium” segment at the Oscars. It takes a while to realize that not everyone in the footage is actually dead.
photos by Donny & Marie
Donny & Marie: Christmas in Los Angeles
The Pantages Theatre in Hollywood
scheduled to end on December 23, 2012
for tickets, visit http://www.broadwayla.org